By Kimberly Harper, WPRO Arts and Entertainment Contributor
PPAC continues its Encore Series this month with “Bullets Over Broadway,” the musical theater version of the 1994 Woody Allen movie by the same name, and it’s a fun, lighthearted, violent hop back to the 1920s that strongly reminded me of some classic Broadway shows in the best possible way.
The story centers around David Shayne, a pretentious New York City playwright who finally stands a chance at having a hit Broadway show. The catch is that Nick Valenti, the mobster who’s willing to shell out money to back the production, is mostly willing to do so in order to make his loudmouthed dancer girlfriend Olive shut up about her dreams of stardom. Over the course of two acts, the show is cast, the play gets on its feet, and we get several love affairs, multiple deaths and some fantastic dance numbers. And, of course, the guy gets the girl. The guy always gets the girl, even when the girl really should smack the guy upside the head and go find someone who isn’t going to act like a jerk.
One of the perks to being a reviewer is getting to see shows that I wouldn’t otherwise be acquainted with, and having never seen the movie this was the case last night. However, I felt like I was on very familiar ground. “Bullets Over Broadway” might just be the most classic musical you’ve never seen. This is old school Broadway, complete with flats and backdrops flying in and out (no projection screens here, except one at the very beginning), creative set pieces moved by the actors, and some incredible dance numbers from the chorus. Throughout the evening I felt like I was watching a conglomeration of “42nd Street,” “Thoroughly Modern Millie,” “Chicago” and “Anything Goes,” and it was great. Oh, and it’s worth noting – this show has a live orchestra and the sound issues that have plagued the last few productions I’ve seen there were nonexistent. You could hear everyone, there was no static – the whole thing was so much more pleasant. I’m not a sound engineer but my guess is that when the speaker system doesn’t have to try and handle piped in music, two keyboards, plus 25 body mics, everything goes a lot better.
A funny thing happens when you turn off the projectors and take away the helicopters, falling chandeliers and hydraulic lifts we’ve come to expect from the modern Broadway show. Without all the smoke and million dollar mirrors, you’re forced to focus solely on the talents of the actors on stage. “Bullets” doesn’t rely on fancy special effects or a whole lot of glitz, and it doesn’t need to. The dancers are talented and ridiculously synchronized, and their harmonies are tight. “Tain’t Nobody’s Bizness If I Do,” performed by a group of gangsters and the mobster Cheech, who’s main purpose is to babysit Olive backstage and deal in moral ambiguity. I can’t remember the last time I’ve seen a tap number that good, and it was one of several show stoppers in the first act alone. The leads – all of them – are good singers and actors. Olive Neal, played by Jemma Jane, has to be off key, talentless, and a bad dancer, which pretty much means the actress has to be the best dancer on that stage. She delivers some of the funniest lines in the show with a completely straight face, making them even better, and absolutely brought the house down with her bawdy burlesque number “The Hot Dog Song.” (Yes, it’s exactly as subtle as it sounds.) Olive’s co-star, Warner Purcell, is over the top, full of himself, and full of just about every food made for man or beast. Bradley Allan Zarr plays him perfectly, and gets plenty of laughs as Purcell’s waistline expands throughout the second act. Jeff Brooks, who plays Cheech, is an incredibly gifted singer, dancer and actor. His dance numbers were some of my favorites, and he plays well against Michael Williams as author Shayne. Williams caught my eye for his slapstick abilities and how well he handled physical comedy, whether that was executing the perfect double take or seemingly melting against a pillar as his show and love life crumbled around him. When Shayne wasn’t going toe to toe with Cheech over the play, he was facing off with fading star Helen Sinclair (Emma Stratton). Stratton’s vocal abilities were especially notable, and not just her strong singing voice – she modulated her words and practically sang some of her more melodramatic lines. That’s when she wasn’t making Shayne drink all manner of alcohol substitutes, including paint thinner and lighter fluid. And no classic play is complete without an ingenue, and while Hannah Rose DeFlumeri may not have many scenes as the forgotten girlfriend Ellen, when she was on stage, she was captivating in every way.
The play concludes with an incredibly random rendition of “Yes We Have No Bananas,” that incorporates the whole cast, including the hot dog vendor from Act 1, into a singing, dancing number that left me completely dumbfounded but endlessly entertained. Two hours after leaving (after the bows, honestly, who are you people who are rushing out of PPAC like this?? It’s 10 p.m. on a Tuesday, what’s so pressing that you have to be this rude?) I’m still not entirely sure what I saw but I liked it a whole lot. As a whole, “Bullets Over Broadway” is a refreshing callback to Broadway as it used to be, and, according to my plus-one, who was familiar with the movie, if you liked the the film, you’re really going to enjoy this version too. Go, and have a great time.
“Bullets Over Broadway” runs through June 5 at the Providence Performing Arts Center, 220 Weybosset St., Providence. Tickets start at $51 and may be obtained by visiting www.ppacri.org, calling 401-421-2787 or visiting the box office at the theater.