Theater Review: Bullets Over Broadway

Aug 17, 2018

WMUK theater reviewer Gordon Bolar
Credit Andrew Robins / WMUK-FM

The Barn Theatre in Augusta has opened its new production of Bullets Over Broadway. WMUK’s Gordon Bolar says it’s a raucous celebration of the roaring Twenties with song, dance, spectacle, and laughter.

Based on the Woody Allen film from 1994, the musical tells the story of an upcoming young playwright, David Shayne, who relies on funding from the Valenti gang to get his work produced on Broadway.

The most interesting turn of this tale occurs when Cheech, a strong-arm gang lieutenant, inserts himself as a head writer during rehearsals over the objections of David. The plot thickens as Cheech’s revisions turn out to be superior to David’s original script.

Bullets works on the Barn Theatre stage largely because it offers a brilliantly illustrated and colorful collection of characters, not the least of which include flappers, gangsters, hoofers, producers, actors and Broadway wannabes.

First there’s the dedicated young writer, David, played by Miguel Ragel Wilson, who is passionately married to his work at the expense of girlfriend, Ellen (played by Rachel Zak) who longs for her own wedding day.

Although the couple undergoes some missteps in their relationship, it’s easy to see how right this romance can be with their soulful duet, “She’s Funny That Way.”

Penelope Alex, as Helen Sinclair, is the over-the-top and slightly over-the-hill actress who represents David’s biggest misstep. Her initial number, “They Simply Go Wild Over Me”, introduces Helen’s giant ego and a flair for the dramatic.

That flair soon turns into a flamethrower and ignites an affair with David. Helen sets her hooks with the raunchy Bessie Smith blues ballad “I Ain’t Gonna Play No Second Fiddle”.

Melissa Cotton Hunter, as a slow-witted bobbed-blonde showgirl Olive, pegs out the thermometer on several numbers. Not the least of these is the show opener, “Tiger Rag,” supported by the cat-eared, stripe-tailed Atta Girls. Hunter lays on the spicy mustard with the steamy “I Want a Hot Dog for my Roll”.

Her sleazy, slinky song and dance with real-life husband Patrick Hunter, the constantly gnoshing actor Warner Purcell, breathes fire, appetite and new possibilities into Cole Porter’s “Let’s Misbehave.”

Johnnie Carpathios, as Cheech, brings both menace and welcome humor to his unsmiling tough character. His defense of violent and threatening actions, “Tain’t Nobody’s Business If I Do” is an in-your-face, show-stopping tap dance backed by a chorus of mobsters.

Other reasons for this show’s success are the solid technical elements that back the Barn’s productions. Lauren Alexandra’s period costumes, along with Samantha Snow’s multi-functional gold- and maroon-stripped deco scenic design, help create the shimmering surface of a glittering era where fortunes can be made or lost and hearts can be united or broken.

Director Hans Friedrich’s production always keeps pace with the period and the action generated by the characters and plot. Chase scenes, love scenes, and dance numbers follow and replace one another with rapid, seamless and often clever transitions that include a parade of dancing skyscrapers, a female bellboy chorus, and running stylized shootouts, all of which are appropriately supported by Brent Decker’s musical direction.

Also important to the pace of the mostly frantic activity in this show, are the strategic long pauses and takes by lead actors Miguel Ragel Wilson and Penelope Alex. These underscore the sense and the humor of key moments in the storyline.

One criticism of this musical is that the show relies mostly on popular standards from the 1920’s rather than on an original score. In most cases, however, the period music, with some adjustments to the lyrics, worked for this production and helped reinforce the mood and setting for respective scenes. And music is only one of many elements that will enhance the audience’s enjoyment of Bullets Over Broadway.

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