Ogunquit's "Bullets over Broadway": Don't Speak!

Vincent Pastore, Reed Campbell & The Ensemble of "Bullets over Broadway"
(photo: Julia Russell)

There is more talent on display on the stage of the Ogunquit Playhouse in its current production of Bullets over Broadway the Musical, a work written by Woody Allen, than on any ten stages anywhere today. Based on the 1994 film written by Allen and Douglas McGrath, it's a shame all that talented energy isn't being put to more use than this virtually empty play. Produced on Broadway in 2014, it ran only156 performances. The musical follows the original screenplay fairly faithfully, focusing on the first play by novice David Shayne (John Rochette), to be premiered on Broadway by Julian Marx (Kenny Morris), financed by wealthy gangster Nick Valenti (Vincent Pastore, recreating his role from the New York production) who requires that it feature his girlfriend Olive Neal (Jemma Jane). Valenti appoints his henchman Cheech (Reed Campbell) to monitor the goings-on, but Cheech ends up making some important changes in the play, while leading man Warner Purcell (John Paul Almon) ogles Olive. Aging diva Helen Sinclair (Michele Ragusa) makes a play for the young playwright, who already has a girlfriend of his own, Ellen (Bridget Elise Yingling). Also on hand are the imposing character of Eden Brent (Ogunquit favorite Sally Struthers) and her dog Mr. Woofles.

As Helen Sinclair declares in the famous oft-repeated line in the film, “Don't speak!”. So they don't very much, leaving a lot of exposition to the choreography originally devised by Susan Stroman and recreated here by Director Jeff Whiting, as well as to the score. The dancing is clever and contributive, which is more than one can say about the musical numbers borrowed from many sources, with such songs as “(Up a) Lazy River”, “I'm Sitting on Top of the World”, and “There'll Be Some Changes Made”, many of which have little to do with any significant context to the plot. There are some twenty such old timers (and five reprises). With some additional lyrics by Glen Kelly, they run the gamut of jazz and pop standards from World War I to the 1930's. But no one seems to care about them in the end, preferring to wallow happily in the nostalgia of it all. Reviews for the Broadway production, especially concerning the “jukebox” musical style, were decidedly mixed. Here, the musical direction by Robbie Cowan, Sound Design by Ken Goodwin, Lighting Design by Richard Latta (an IRNE winner for last season's Hunchback of Notre Dame), and Costume Design by William Ivey Long (from the Broadway version) are all superior work.

The performances are also memorable, from Ragusa (a powerhouse), Jane (hysterically dumb) and Campbell (menacing), not to mention Struthers, who's unfortunately given little chance to share her estimable theatrical chops, relegated to speaking ig-pay atin-Lay and sing one number as a dog. Really. The gangsters dance wonderfully if weirdly as they mimic various crimes. But it's the fundamental crudity and crassness that one remembers, not even at the level of vaudeville but burlesque, offensive and dumb, veering from the amoral to the immoral, which may sound prudish, but there you are. Add to this several severely underdeveloped characters and some wildly inappropriate (considering their original contexts) versions of songs, such as “Taint Nobody's Biz-ness If I Do”, and the work approaches what one character declares as “new heights of vacuousness”. It's a hodgepodge that reminds one of building Frankenstein from spare body parts. At one point Ragusa declares “don't sing”, but they do. The show left some of the audience nearly orgasmic with joy, while some left early, an option, alas, not available to critics.

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