Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Magic 'Bullets' at Phoenix Theatre

Caleb Reese and Michelle Chin
photo by Reg Madison Photography
by Jennifer Haaland

Shooting some excellent fun into the Valley's theatre scene, Phoenix Theatre opened Bullets Over Broadway, the 2014 Woody Allen Broadway musical comedy, this weekend.  Contemplative and deep, it is not. Leave unhappy or unimpressed?  It won't happen.

Stereotyped from the opening tacky showgirl number and gangster gunfire to the final bow, the thin story evolves so that a gangster's talentless showgirl girlfriend can be a star. A struggling, idealistic, but only mediocre playwright thus finds his show produced and on its way to Broadway. Popular standards of the 1920s and 30s like 'Tiger Rag' (Hold That Tiger), Cole Porter's "Let's Misbehave," "Up a Lazy River" (made famous by Hoagy Carmichael & Louis Armstrong), and the ever-ridiculous "Yes! We Have No Bananas" cleverly suit the plot as well.

So much more engaging than the surface description suggests, actual showstopper after showstopper just kept spilling off  the stage. There were tap dancing mafia members who stole the show, legitimate Charleston moments, and rapid-fire belted ballads by big beautiful voices. High quality jazz danced across the proscenium with wailing saxophone in the pit's jazz combo while machine guns fired with percussive flare.  Director Michael Barnard bullet-proofed the production with a creative team of over-achievers who built a technically pleasing show that boasts a killer lighting design, fabulously bright era-appropriate costumes, a snazzy set, and creative staging.

The mob boss (Scott Davidson) and his cheap, razzle-dazzle girlfriend (Michelle Chin) are balanced by a Bohemian playwright (Toby Yatso) and his sweetly devoted fiancé-hopeful (Emilie Doering).

Davidson is the perfect strong-arming mob boss who's lost moral compass make his audacious actions seem smoothly natural. Brainless and tactless are tough qualities to deliver, but Chin is adorably daft while making it seem effortless. Take her "Hotdog Song." It's beyond super suggestive with glaring neon double "on-tawn-drays" that she promises to explain, though they've been graphically spelled out during the number in hilarious theatrical dance. It takes real talent to be that untalented.

Leading man Yatso's straight man expressions and boyish features make his naive character's absurd predicaments all the more uproarious. His laugh tally undoubtedly broke the machine by the end of the evening. When Doering's  sweet innocence as Yatso's adoring fiancĂ©' turns to vamping sex monster in the second act, laughter tumbles out the jaws that have dropped wide open.

Then, the artsy world of bistros and berets meets gaudy theatre stereotypes and machine gun goons as the playwright's cast assembles and begins rehearsing. Woody Allen's sense of humor can't help but evoke knowing groans and genuine laughs.

An aging diva and part-time drunk (Sally Jo Bannow) is leading lady of the play within the musical.  It's hard to imagine the role wasn't written expressly for Bannow's fantastic melodramatic brand of comedic snark. Surprisingly, in true ensemble fashion, the other characters in the drama rise to her impeccable level of stereotype.  Her diva extreme was matched in energy most notably by Robert Kolby Harper's lusty, 'heavy' humor.

Absolutely, the evening's crowning highlight was Cheech (Caleb Reese) as a sensitive and artistic intellectual contradicted by his own conscience-less mob hit-man mentality. In this musical, he is the best written of Woody Allen's characters. To make Cheech believable, laughable, and even lovable in a rough-edged way took expert timing and handsome delivery for which Reese is to be commended.

Bullets Over Broadway at Phoenix Theatre.  It's dressed-up crass.  It's fun-loving bawdy.  Talent oozes and laughter rips.  If your brain has been buried in the complex and the stressful and the anxious, Phoenix Theatre's new show could well be your magic bullet

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