Bullets Over Broadway
The show is lively if not timely
THEATER | Jamila Wicks
The production of Bullets Over Broadway at The Legacy Theatre has a few enjoyable moments. However, it does not fully meet expectations in terms of providing "the best medicine for the times," as the musical's director, Chaz Wolcott, hopes.
In his director's statement, Wolcott acknowledges how difficult the past three years have been and suggests some may call it a collective trauma. He believes we all deserve time to unwind and have a few hours of levity. And who could disagree with that? However, it raises the question of whether this musical written by Woody Allen is the most appropriate remedy for such a time.
Bullets Over Broadway is a musical adaptation of Woody Allen's 1994 film. Debuting as a musical on Broadway in 2014, the story takes place in Prohibition-era New York during the 1920s. It revolves around David Shane, a budding playwright searching for financial support for his show.
Shane, the lead character, portrayed by Will Moffett, meets Nick Valente, a powerful mob boss, played by Mark Wheeler, who offers to invest in the show on the condition that Shane casts his untalented and demanding girlfriend, Olive Neal, played by Campbell Coker. Once the deal is set, Shane picks a cast for the play. Neal struggles to find her footing among them. To her disappointment, Valente assigns Cheech, his top gangster, as her bodyguard. Surprisingly, Cheech turns out to have a flair for playwriting and a genuine interest in it.
As the story unfolds, the audience gets to experience an exuberant and campy musical, complete with a well-styled set and fabulously dressed Atta-Girls, gangsters and other supporting cast members dancing to lively 1920s music. Wendy Hayward, Mary McDonald, Scott Richardson, Betty Ring and their team deserve recognition for creating stunning costume ensembles and beautiful sets that make each scene a visual delight. However, the humor and lightheartedness promised at the onset of the musical did not quite deliver and missed the mark.
Given recent events such as the pandemic, social unrest and Supreme Court rulings, coupled with Woody Allen's complicated history with misogyny and racism, some individuals may perceive Bullets Over Broadway, once considered charming and funny in 1994 and 2014, as cringy and vulgar. It feels wrong to fully enjoy a musical that portrays women in derogatory roles, like showgirls dressed provocatively as tigers, or to laugh at a cast of female characters depicted as flighty, alcoholic and promiscuous and use them as an escape from the pressing issues of our time. Presently, such depictions seem tasteless and inappropriate.
Additionally, in response to a critique of the 2014 Broadway production, Chaz Wolcott, the director of the musical adaptation, seems to have made a conscious decision to cast Black actors as gangsters. This choice deviates from the original version by Allen, which did not feature such casting. The new casting approach offers the audience the opportunity to witness the impressive tap-dancing skills of Jaden Saunders in a couple of roles. Yet, Wolcott's attempt at a new direction falls short when one of Saunders' characters is shot in Act I. In Act II, Saunders is the only cast member dressed as a banana tap dancing on stage as the company performs "Yes, We Have No Bananas."
Opinions may vary regarding the relevance of the Woody Allen musical in today's world. Some may consider Bullets Over Broadway outdated, while others may see it as a welcome reprieve from current affairs. There is no judgment here for either stance. The show features impressive tap dancing, fabulous costumes, a wonderfully creative set design and a chance to support local arts, making it worthwhile to see it and visit the charming Legacy Theatre. Performances continue July 13-16 and 19-23.
Jamila Wicks has over 20 years of experience working in government and nonprofit organizations, with the last five years focused on arts and cultural institutions. She currently resides in Decatur while working in Springfield. Wicks is originally from Georgia and holds a master's degree in public administration and a bachelor's degree in journalism from the University of Georgia.