Bullets Over Broadway

                        At The PrivateBank Theatre

                       by Dan Zeff

Chicago Playgoers who enjoy high-quality choreography and dancing in their shows should be reasonably satisfied with the touring production of “Bullets Over Broadway” at The PrivateBank Theatre. But those playgoers also will have to fight through more than two hours of noisy, heavy-handed attempts at comedy.

The antecedents of the 2014 musical suggest that the production had hit possibilities. It is based on the 1994 movie of the same name by Woody Allen that attracted laudatory reviews for its wacky charm and humor. The director/choreographer for the stage adaptation was Susan Stroman, she of “The Producers” fame. Allen himself signed on to write the book. So the prospects were pleasing. But the reality turned out to be mostly abrasive and over the top, a enterprise that has to go down as one of the major missed opportunities of the decade.

“Bullets Over Broadway” is set during the Roaring Twenties in a New York City that carries a strong nostalgic whiff of “Guys and Dolls.” The plot revolves around David Shayne, a pretentious young playwright from Pittsburgh with delusions of artistic integrity. Desperate to find financial backing for one of his unplayable plays, he signs on with a New York mobster named Nick Valenti who is no patron of the arts but is looking for a stage vehicle to feature his no-talent brassy mistress Olive Neal, who fancies herself a Broadway star in waiting and not the trashy slut she is.

The playwright gradually compromises his ideals to get his show staged, along the way getting involved with the play’s egotistical leading lady Helen Sinclair. Then there is Warner Purcell, the leading man who is a compulsive eater, permitting the character to inflate his waistline from scene to scene with what is supposed to be rollicking humorous results. Getting left behind in all the show business clamor is Ellen, David’s love interest from Pittsburgh, a sweet young thing with an ostentatiously receptive attitude toward heavy sex.

The music is an amalgam of songs identified with the Jazz Age, like “Running Wild,” “Up a Lazy River,” “I’ve Found a New Baby,” “Tiger Rag,” and “I’m Sittin’ on Top of the World.” They are shoehorned into the storyline but often serve as background for dance numbers by the lightly clad chorus of young ladies who appear throughout the evening, sometimes as the floorshow in Nick Valenti’s nightclub. The dancing scene stealer of the show is a hot tap dance number performed by gangsters led by Cheech, Valenti’s lieutenant. The hoods set the audience roaring with their all-out attack on “Tain’t Nobody’s Business If I Do.”

Cheech turns out to be the most entertaining character in the show. He’s a hit man who blows people away with no hard feelings, including Valenti’s doxie Olive. Cheech has been observing Shayne’s play in rehearsal and turns play doctor, supplying dialogue and plot revisions on the wing that gradually elevate David’s impossible script into a box office success. Cheech may be a cold-blooded killer but he’s a fun guy and the production takes off whenever he is involved in the action.

Unfortunately, Cheech isn’t on stage enough to save the leaden and laboriously over the top book. Missing throughout the evening is the deft comic touch that made the movie such a delight. The chief offenders are Olive Neal and Warner Purcell. It may be unjust to trash Jemma Jane and Bradley Allan Zarr for their performances. They likely were doing what the director-required hem to do (the playbill credits Jeff Whiting for recreating Stroman’s original directing so they may share the blame for the comic carnage). There are comic possibilities in the clueless and semiliterate Olive aspiring to acting greatness, and Jane does get some laughs with her interpretation of “The Hot Dog Song,” originally a hilarious phallic novelty number recorded by the black comedy team of Butterbeans and Susie in the 1920’s. But the performance tries too hard to sell the song as a rib0ald belly laugh when it’s really a number that best serves up giggles to a startled audience. The number is one of several raunchy bits scattered throughout what otherwise is a pretty PG-13 endeavor.

Warner Purcell is pure ham actor garnished with his running overeating gag. Granted the character is anything but subtle, the man needn’t be so irritatingly outlandish. On the plus side, Zarr does a nice job with the wordplay in Cole Porter’s classic “Let’s Misbehave” so he can deliver if the nonsense is constrained.

The star of the show is Jeff Brooks as Cheech in a triple threat acting-singing-dancing performance. Brian Martin shows good acting and singing chops as the boyish David Shayne and Emma Stratton displays a strong voice as the erotically inclined Helen Sinclair (the female characters in this show have much stronger sexual appetites than the macho male characters).

My favorite person in the ensemble was Hannah Rose Deflumeri, David’s Pittsburgh sweetheart. She’s a convincing nice girl afloat in all the big city vulgarity and her pain and confusion is genuine as she sees her David fall into the predatory clutches of Helen Sinclair. Deflumeri tops off the performance with a sly and comic peak into her sensual proclivities.

The production is non-Equity but there is no failure of professionalism or enthusiasm in the large ensemble. I suspect that the defects at The PrivateBankTheatre replicate the problems the show had on Broadway. The physical production is colorful, especially the chorus girls’ wardrobe. William Ivey Long’s costumes are all authentically Roaring Twenties. And while it would be nice to hear an original score of enjoyable numbers, the reprise of golden oldies is engaging listening.

I left the theater feeling that there is a better “Bullets Over Broadway” than what I saw on opening night. The show may not rank among the great backstage musicals like “The Producers” and “42nd Street,” but with directorial restraint it could have raised its entertainment quotient much higher. For some reason, Woody Allen let the comic reins slip through his hands. Still, the Busby Berkeley flavored choreography will give viewers an agreeable nostalgic rush and the gangster tap dance number shows what might have been (Clare Cook is credited as recreating Stroman’s choreography). And I definitely would seek out Hannah Rose’s Deflumeri’s next musical performance.

“Bullets Over Broadway” runs through May 1 at The PrivateBank Theatre, 18 West Monroe Street. Performances are Tuesday through Friday at 7:30 p.m. with a Wednesday matinee at 2 p.m., Saturday at 2 and 8 p.m., and Sunday at 2 and 7:30 p.m. with no evening performance on May 1. Tickets are $19 to $85. Call 800 775 2000 or visit

                        The show gets a rating of 2½ stars.

         Contact Dan at: ZeffDaniel@yahoo.          April 2016

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