The terrific 1994 Oscar-winning black comedy “Bullets Over Broadway” is a theater lovers’ film. It is for this reason — amid so many, many more reasons — it makes for such a great adaptation for the stage. Though the musical opened on Broadway in 2014 to mixed reviews, it’s a wondrous achievement at The Barn Theatre in Augusta.
Stripped of writer’s Woody Allen’s annoying directorial quirks while retaining his wacky, intelligent humor and infused with dazzling, bawdy musical numbers fully situated in the Jazz Age in New York City, “Bullets Over Broadway” under Hans Friedrichs’ direction is a visual delight full of knockout performances that bring to life wickedly hilarious characters in a story so ridiculous and well-written, it’s utterly believable.
In 1920s Manhattan, a pedantic Pittsburgh playwright’s pretentious first play is being produced with the help of a mob boss (Charlie King) who wants a major role for his vapid girlfriend (Melissa Cotton Hunter). Her aspiration is to play Lady Macbeth without pasties and her major marketable skill as a performer is her ability to pick up quarters with an orifice that isn’t her mouth. The other cast members include an alcoholic nymphomaniacal diva past her prime (Penelope Alex) who seduces the director/playwright (Miguel Ragel Wilson) in exchange for a lustier character, “from spiritually noble to multiply orgasmic;” a leading man (Patrick Hunter) who’s a closeted compulsive eater until he nearly busts out of his costumes; and a supporting actress (Gabi Shook) who loves her ubiquitous purse dog so much she jokes that she breastfeeds him.
Everyone’s a script doctor, but none as effective as Cheech (Johnnie Carpathios), the Mob boss’s right-hand henchman stuck at rehearsals to babysit the girlfriend, who admits he went to readin’ and writin’ school before he burned it down. His talent for storytelling and natural dialogue lands him rewriting the script and changing everyone’s fate.
It’s a terrific premise writ large as a period musical, particularly with the unparalleled talent at The Barn who make it look and sound larger than life with gorgeous design, fantastic comedic skill, and a fabulous array of voices that are brilliant together. Everything and everyone sparkles in the best of ways with nary a dull spot in this 34-person, cast plus the pooch. The ensemble of Atta Girls, the speakeasy show-girl flappers donning Marcel-waved bobs designed by Crysta Menefee Gsellman, and mobster gangs of men make Kasady Kwiatkowska’s excellent choreography look like a breeze, from balletic jazz to tremendous tap to racy burlesque and a hot dog quartet.
Samantha Snow’s slightly seedy set with pretty Art Deco flourishes creates distinct spaces for a nightclub/speakeasy as well as a theater while also allowing for diversion downriver for mob “business” all the while clearly delineating a 1920s New York feel. Lauren Alexandra’s suits and flapper dresses are drop-dead gorgeous, and Michael Wilson Morgan’s Hot Dogs are a scream. And the marvelous horn-driven orchestra led by Musical Director Brent J. Decker breathes new life into Alan Menken’s fun, lively score of mostly recognizable standards of the era, including “Let’s Misbehave,” “Tain’t Nobody’s Biz-ness If I Do,” “Runnin’ Wild,” and “Yes! We Have No Bananas.”
And it would seem that would be more than enough to make a magnificent musical. However, it’s the pitch-perfect virtuoso performances that make this show positively side-splitting. Miguel Ragel Wilson’s moralistic, anxious, cerebral David is wonderfully complex and hysterical as he navigates worlds out of his league with plenty of pitfalls. He’s a gorgeous singer and has wonderful chemistry and duets with Rachel Zack as Ellen and Penelope Alex in her bold and nuanced performance as the deliciously manipulative Diva Helen Sinclair.
Johnnie Carpathios is a magnificent and commanding Cheech, the cool-as-a-cucumber gangster extraordinaire unexpectedly turned artiste.
And Melissa Cotton Hunter is out of this world as Olive, the cute-as-a-button sexy stripteaser and aspiring serious actress who simply cannot grasp the meaning of most of her lines. Every one of her moments on stage is an event, and her rendition of “I Want a Hot Dog for My Roll” is every bit as saucy and suggestive as you might think, especially with her “interpretive dance.” Her clandestine romance “in cognito" (“Where’s that?”) with real-life husband Patrick Hunter (who milks for everything it’s worth leading man Warner’s emotional eating that gets the best of his shrinking costumes) provides especially wonderful moments as well.
But there’s not a performance on this stage that isn’t a standout, and yet the ensemble moves as one to everyone’s comic delight. Together with the marvelous design, fantastic music, and smart script, what’s said onstage of the play within a play can easily be applied here: “The early reviews are in, and it’s a smash!”
Bullets Over Broadway