Chicago Theater Review: BULLETS OVER BROADWAY (NightBlue Performing Arts Company at Stage 773)

by Lawrence Bommer on September 12, 2017

in Theater-Chicago

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A THUG BECOMES A MUSE

“Fish out of water” humor meets showbiz stereotypes—that’s the gag-winning formula in the 1994 film Bullets Over Broadway, starring John Cusack, Jennifer Tilly, Diane Wiest, Mary-Louis Parker, and a wonderful Chazz Palminteri. It was Woody Allen’s twisted Valentine to the “Great White Way” and the flappers, gangsters and dreamers who made the 20s roar. Two worlds collide—the thug life and marquee society—and, to paraphrase one of its rousers, “T’ain’t Nobody’s Biz-ness If It Do.”

Employing vintage numbers from that melodious time (“Up A Lazy River,” “Tiger Rag,” “There’ll Be Some Changes Made,” “There’s a New Day Comin,’” even the incredibly irrelevant finale “Yes, We Have No Bananas”) with new lyrics by Glen Kelly, this 98-minute flick distilled a crack-brained plot into pizzazz-packed performances. Twenty years after, Susan Stroman shaped it into the Broadway musical it was meant to be. Three years later, it’s a fun-fueled Chicago premiere by NightBlue Performing Arts at Stage 773, cunningly staged and crackingly choreographed by the always reliable, five-time Jeff Award-winning Kevin Bellie.

It’s 1929 and Pittsburg-born scribbler David Shayne (bumptious Cody Ellsworth), along with his hometown sweetheart Ellen (sweet-faced Maddy Kelly), is eager to see his first script “God of Our Fathers” open on Times Square. To prosecute that passion David makes a deal with the devil, specifically moneyed mobster Nick Valenti (pugnacious Tim Green). This dark don will back the venture if his no-talent, bimbo/airhead girlfriend Olive Neal (a dumbed-down, dim-witted Rachel Juncker) gets a lead. Equally ambitious, David’s driven producer Julian Marx (Nick Cuellar), his name a homage to the impresario in 42nd Street, eggs David on to a fateful collaboration.

David is instantly ushered into the hothouse world of a musical in the making, with try-outs in Boston and a night of reckoning in godawful Gotham. Surefire stock characters caught in backstage dalliances include the has-been lush headliner Helen Sinclair (ever busy Monica Szaflik). This self-inflated “cougar” diva (“They Go Wild, Simply Wild, Over Me”) makes a clumsy play for her pliable playwright (“I Ain’t Gonna Play No Second Fiddle’). Meanwhile gluttonous matinee idol Warner Purcell (unctuous Jack Wright) diddles with nympho/dipso/klepto Olive (“Let’s Misbehave”).

At the heart of 150 minutes of high and low humor is the strange artistic dependency between David and Olive’s hoodlum bodyguard Cheech (Jonathan Rivera, tough and sweet). Bored with rehearsals, sick of Olive’s pretensions to talent, and irritated by David’s “tepid and cerebral” plot, the henchman doubles as a play doctor—and his suggested rewrites, immediately endorsed by the cast, actually make the comedy work. Inevitably, their partnership is doomed by Olive’s hubris and bad boss Nick’s urge to purge. Maybe David and Ellen (“Blues My Naughty Sweetie Gives to Me” and “She’s Funny That Way”) should eschew the lure of klieg lights and shuffle back to Pittsburgh.

Along the proscenium-framed way we enjoy such tap-dancing treats as the red cap chorines crooning “Good Old New York” on a flying Zephyr; the vaudevillian “Hot Dog Song,” complete with frankfurter costumes; a pell-mell rhetorical question “Gee Baby, Ain’t I Good to You?”; the peroxided Atta-Girls’ cooing “(I’ll Be Glad When You’re Dead) You Rascal You”; and the rampaging first-act finale “Runnin’ Wild,” reminiscent of the hilarious hijinks in Billy Wilder’s very similar masterpiece Some Like It Hot.

Some of NightBlue’s slapstickery is too forced to be funny, but every dance number—and there’s a lot of novelty hoofing—delights. Allen’s salacious dialogue delivers a stolen truckload of laughs. Shayne plays the befuddled intellectual (a Woody Allen patent) with combustible confusion (“The Panic Is On”), a Candide in “Glitter Gulch” who strays from his Cunegonde to everyone’s peril. With major moxie and big-hearted boffo, it’s a fantasy turned frolic. And it has its serious side too: Don’t forget that, yes, they have no bananas.

photos by Drew Peterson

Bullets Over Broadway
NightBlue Performing Arts Company
Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont
ends on October 8, 2017
for tickets, call 773.327.5252 or visit Stage 773

for more shows, visit Theatre in Chicago

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