The gold-fringed red velvet curtain that slides back slowly to reveal the action is exactly right for the time period: Bullets Over Broadway the Musical, a reworking of Woody Allen’s 1994 film, takes place in the 1920s. It opened on Broadway in 2014, and now director John Ashton has brought the show to Vintage Theatre for a local premiere. Bullets Over Broadway is full of familiar ’20s characters: comic, gun-toting gangsters; a dopy, talentless actress who wants to be a star; an aging diva with a drinking problem; a leading man with an eating problem (perhaps not as familiar a figure); and a young male protagonist who has a lot to learn about the world. But since Allen adapted the film script for this, Bullets is more witty, wry and self-referential than the traditional ’20s musical — though it’s equally frothy and has all the tap dancing anyone could want.
Olive is the dumb broad who longs to play Lady Macbeth, and this time not in pasties. Adrianne Hampton manages to embody the stereotype perfectly while occasionally sliding out a sideways look that indicates she knows exactly what she’s doing. She’s loved by mafioso Nick Valenti, played by John Gleason with a kind of weary wickedness, and he intends to help her fulfill her ambitions by buying her a production, a pretentiously awful play by the young David Shayne. As David, Damon Guerrasio plays straight man to all the crazies with suitable bewilderment. I was of two minds about Mary McGroary’s performance as diva Helen Sinclair, which is insanely over the top. But it’s also insanely funny, and the things the lady can do with her voice — taking it up, sinking it down, holding on to improbable notes past all expectation — are brilliant. Another standout is TJ Hogle as Cheech, the muscle sent by Valenti to watch over his Olive. Turns out the big galoot has a creative soul, and as he suggests changes and finally takes over the writing, David’s script gets better and better, until everyone’s proclaiming him the new Eugene O’Neill. By now, however, Cheech sees the work as his own, and Olive’s terrible delivery grates on his delicate authorial ego. Unfortunately, Cheech knows only one way of solving his problems. Hogle rivets attention by not appearing to try too hard: Rather than mimic movie gangsters, he just exudes quiet authority, helped by his imposing size. The best number of the evening is his rendition of “Tain’t Nobody’s Biz-ness If I Do,” while tapping with his fellow thugs.
The Broadway production received several Tonys, but also negative as well as ecstatic reviews. For some viewers, the show, directed and choreographed by Susan Stroman, was too huge, loud, brassy and soulless. The Vintage version has loads of humor and energy, too, but Ashton (a Westword staff writer decades ago) has pitched things just right: The pace is human, you have time to get the jokes, the song numbers delight without overwhelming. The dancing, choreographed by Kelly Van Oosbree, is exuberant and tightly executed, and Emily Campbell’s costumes, from glamorous gowns to David’s droopy cardigan, are perfect.
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Another sticking point for dissenters is that this musical’s songs aren’t original; they’re jazz and musical numbers from the era, given new lyrics. But they’re also wonderful as only Cole Porter, Bessie Smith and Hoagy Carmichael can be wonderful; the new lyrics are clever, and the way the numbers are interpolated into the story is a hoot. Carmichael’s “Up the Lazy River,” a lovely, late-summer-feeling tune, is sung by Cheech as he escorts his victims to their watery graves. And the big finale? “Yes, We Have No Bananas.” Perhaps Allen couldn’t think of anything else, threw up his hands and just tossed it in. Or maybe it’s a clever dig at the vapidity of the musical genre, even a mockery of this delightfully meaningless show itself.
It doesn’t really matter, because by now audience members are on their feet, laughing and applauding. The laughter continues in the lobby and as everyone spills out into the street — a clear signal that if you haven’t seen this production yet, you need to get tickets. Now.
Bullets Over Broadway the Musical
Presented by Vintage Theatre through May 27, 1468 Dayton Street, Aurora, 303-856-7830, vintagetheatre.com.