Curtain Critic: “Bullets Over Broadway” won’t blow you away

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(Courtesy of Phoenix Theatre)
(Courtesy of Phoenix Theatre)

Rating (out of four stars): ★★

“Bullets Over Broadway” at Phoenix Theatre is not going to change your life, and frankly you probably won’t think about it again when you leave the theatre except to remember why you’re humming tunes about hot dogs and bananas.

The premise of the musical is your typical “show-within-a-show” story; complete with the struggling playwright, ingénue-turned-deviant, diva past her prime and ditzy aspiring star. To differentiate itself, the show offers a mobster as its unlikely hero.

The production is funny and well-executed but not particularly charming or thought-provoking. To be fair, playwright Woody Allen, who based the stage version of “Bullets Over Broadway” on his 1994 film, gives the directors and cast little to work with in terms of character depth or complexity of meaning. (Despite this, the show itself is critically acclaimed. “Bullets Over Broadway” garnered six Tony nominations in 2014, including “Best Book of a Musical.”)

David Shayne, played by Toby Yatso, is the struggling playwright who finally finds a wealthy backer in the form of mob boss Nick Valenti (Scott Davidson). Valenti’s sole condition: that his raunchy, untalented showgirl girlfriend (Olive Neal, played by Michelle Chin) must get a substantial part. Shayne agrees after some trepidation and is able to assemble a cast that includes the far-from-starving actor Warner Purcell (Robert Kolby Harper) and aging star Helen Sinclair (Sally Jo Bannow), with whom he quickly becomes infatuated, forgetting his more sweet-tempered fiancée, Ellen (Emilie Doering).

Things get interesting when Cheech (Caleb Reese), the mobster who has been hired to ensure Olive gets the respect she thinks she deserves, weighs in on Shayne’s writing. When his ideas are well-received, Cheech goes so far as to rewrite most of the play. He promises Shayne not to reveal himself as the true mastermind behind the rewrites—even when the play has been lauded by critics and is about to open on Broadway.

What Phoenix Theatre’s production lacks, above all, is nuance. Cheech is the only truly dynamic character, and Reese’s straight-faced, no-nonsense take plays well, with the scene in which he disposes of Olive in a canal being perhaps the funniest of the play as morbid as that is. But Yatso as the ne’er-do-well protagonist takes on his stereotype a bit too well, becoming a sort of caricature of the unhappy artist without making his character particularly likeable.

There was a short piece of dialogue at the end which made me inwardly cringe and wonder if I was missing some hidden point. Shayne, after realizing Helen Sinclair is no longer in love with him, rushes back to his ex-girlfriend, Ellen and confesses that she still loves her. Ellen immediately takes him back. The scene was obviously written to be satirical, but in the context of the production it was completely unrealistic. The directors could have worked with Shayne and Doering to emphasize the satire or could have found a way to visually show the characters’ change of heart.

Sally Jo Bannow as Helen Sinclair is an example of what can be done with a somewhat flat, stereotypical role. She takes the aging diva stereotype to the extreme, but her acting comes from an authentic place and her comic timing is impeccable.

In general, Sam Hay’s choreography was well-executed (especially the tap numbers!) but at times the blocking seemed a bit off-center and needed to be tightened up. It’s opening weekend, after all.

If you like high-energy numbers, raunchy jokes and big personalities, you’ll probably get a kick out of “Bullets Over Broadway.” If you’re looking for something more nuanced, steer clear. Keep in mind that “I Want A Hotdog For My Roll” and “Yes! We Have No Bananas!” might be stuck in your head for a while.

Bullets Over Broadway runs through April 2 at Phoenix Theatre. Tickets are available at the box office or online.

Contact the columnist at Faith.Anne.Miller@asu.edu.