Touring production of 'Bullets Over Broadway' hits the mark, if musical itself doesn't always

Touring production of 'Bullets over Broadway' hits the mark, if musical itself doesn't always

With all the school and other shootings that have taken lives and changed families' forever, loaded guns are hardly a laughing matter.

If you're one of those people who easily feels guilty, you may feel the need to repent for enjoying something that pairs loaded guns with laughter.

But the theater, while often depicting reality, can also offer an escape from our scary world, allowing us to indulge in "sinful" entertainment.

And "Bullets Over Broadway," the musical comedy version of the 1994 film of the same title, is, at times, as sinful as a rich brownie with whipped cream, ice cream and extra fudge sauce. But some unfunny lines and songs that do little for the story dilute some of the sweetness, although the actors possess strong, expressive voices, backed by the lush sounds of an orchestra.

A commendable touring version of the Broadway musical, which aims for and hits the bulls-eye, is locked and loaded at Playhouse Square's Connor Palace through Oct. 18.

While the show, at different points, is an entertaining, comic, stylish delight,  it's made up mostly of empty calories, like that brownie or cotton candy. If you want to get deep -- and you shouldn't overdo it with a musical comedy such as this -- there are messages about how far playwrights will go to reach Broadway. There's also the issue of passing off someone else's work as your own.

But despite bullets sprayed across the stage, this is largely light escapist fare.

You might recall the 1994 film version written and directed by Woody Allen, and starring John Cusack, Dianne West and Jennifer Tilly. The musical adaptation possesses its own brand of energy and lacks the annoying device of Shayne talking to the movie's audience over the film's action.

It's 1920s New York and struggling playwright David Shayne has somehow come up with what he thinks is the perfect play for the Great White Way.

To secure funding for the production, producer Julian Marx (a serviceable Rick Grossman) turns to wealthy mobster Nick Valenti (a quietly confident, at other times intimidating Michael Corvino). The white-collar crook agrees, under the condition that his dim-witted girlfriend with an exaggerated New York accent receive a major part.

To ensure the girlfriend, Olive Neal (a ditzy, scatterbrained Jemma Jane, who can also be loud in a slapstick kind of way and growl), is safe, Valenti assigns one of his minions, the mobster known only as "Cheech" (a tall, quietly imposing, at other times menacing Jeff Brooks) to serve as her bodyguard.

Problems will naturally arise when the particular playwright has issues with the pea-size brained Neal, who doesn't want any of her lines cut.

Throw the bully Cheech into the mix, whose obviously out for his boss' girlfriend's interests, and you've got a potential Molotov cocktail simmering.

The comedy of the piece stems from several sources. They include Neal's odd mixture of airheadedness and an ambition the size of the giant from "Jack and the Beanstalk, leaving us wondering how or if she'll ever pull off a role this size, on Broadway no less. Then there's the irony of Shayne (an ambitious, at times flustered and intense Michael Williams), a supposedly law-abiding man, stealing the work of a mobster who, amazingly, re-writes Shayne's play and does so brilliantly, turning Shayne into a star. Of course, much of his play's content is not his work, but who cares about such minor details when you can be a star of a Broadway scribe?

"Bullets over Broadway" has some amusing lines and lyrics (this is Woody Allen's work, of course); at one point, Cheech tells Neal "You want the lead? Go to acting school," To which the young woman replies "Why, you never went to extortion school?"

At another point, Neal says "I want to play Lady Macbeth, but not in pasties."

The songs weren't written specifically for the stage adaptation, but consist of existing songs from the 20s. It can be a challenge to integrate existing songs into a story and have the numbers add immeasurably to the tale.

"Tiger Rag," a jazz standard, is an example. It has little or nothing to do with the story and merely prolongs the show. The opening lyrics:
Where's that tiger? Where's that tiger? Here's that tiger. Where's that tiger? Here's that tiger. Where's that tiger? There's that tiger." The rest of the song is basically repetitive.

There are also lines that simply aren't funny.

Marx: His name is Nick Valenti.
David: How do I know that name? What does he do?
Marx: He’s got his finger in a number of pies.
David: He’s a baker?

Some songs nicely capture a character's mood, such as "I'm Sitting on Top of the World," sung by Shayne when rehearsals begin for his play.

The original choreography by Susan Stroman (who also arranged the movement and directed shows such as Mel Brooks' "The Producers") is recreated here by Clare Cook. The dancing appropriately reinforces the toughness of the gangsters, with intimidating stomping and kicking as well as somersaulting and hand punching. Such moves bring to mind the in-your-face choreography of "West Side Story," in which the dancing vividly tells the tale. But parts of the story seem derivative from shows such as "Guys and Dolls."

Stroman's original direction, re-created here by Jeff Whiting, creates some striking and appropriate stage pictures, such as when an overjoyed Shayne stands atop a table, reinforcing his state of mind.

Touring lighting designer Carolyn Wong, re-creating Donald Holder's original work, nicely suggests, at appropriate times, various moods.

Costume designer William Ivey Long's award-winning outfits beautifully define the characters personalities and stations in life. Dark, pinstriped suites and black hats suggest the darkness of the gangsters' motives and their stylishness, a glittering outfit perfectly matches the diva Helen Sinclair (an elegant, ambitious and seductive Emma Stratton).

Scenic designer Jason Ardizzone-West has created some stand alone but appropriately formal set pieces.

The play begins with one of the mobsters "shooting" (spraying?) the words "Bullets Over Broadway" onto the curtain. That's followed by more shooting.

Sure, the real-life shootings should be at the forefront of our minds. It's in the news and rightly so. But remember: This is the theater, frothy entertainment's on the menu and it's OK to escape and enjoy.

No need to repent.

IF YOU GO

WHAT: "Bullets Over Broadway: The Musical."

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, 1:30 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 17 as well as 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 18.

WHERE: PlayhouseSquare's Connor Palace in downtown Cleveland's theater district.

For ticket information and touring cities, visit www.playhousesquare.com or call 216-241-6000.