“DON’T SPEAK! Don’t speak, be silent…” (–at least until you finish reading this!) As the latest production of their 2017-2018 season, “One More Productions”, the resident theater company housed in the landmark “Gem Theatre” in Garden Grove California, are presenting the Southern California Premiere Production of Woody Allen’s first opus into devising a Musical for the stage– “Bullets Over Broadway”! Based on his 1994 big-screen blockbuster comedy of the same name, this musical version features a book by Allen (adapted from his own screenplay) while the score is comprised of bona fide jazz and popular standards from the Roaring Twenties era, many of which having been ‘punched up’ (often with new or additional lyrics, among other tuneful modifications,) by Glen Kelly. This new production is directed by “One More Productions” Co-Founder Damien Lorton with Choreography by Heather Holt-Smith (ably ‘aided and abetted’ by Assistant Choreographer, Katie Marshall.)
“Welcome to the finest club–with Gin made in the finest tub!” sing the boisterous band of “Atta Girls”, headed by Backstreet Bump-and-Grinder turned Mob Moll, “Olive Neal”. The year is 1929 (just before the crash) where aspiring playwright “David Shayne” (a man of lofty ideals, though marginal talents) has written his first play titled “God of Our Fathers”. He’s sure it can make him the toast of Broadway overnight, trouble is though, he just can’t raise the bucks required to mount a production that will, at last, get the real heavy-hitters all along the “Great White Way” to sit up and take notice; that is, until his producer enlists the aid of wealthy gangster “Nick Valenti” to finance the show—with only one catch involved: the Manhattan Mob Boss wants them to cast his pretty, but dim-as-dishwater (—and just as untalented) girlfriend, and you guessed it—her name is “Olive”, to star as one of the leads. (In fact, he wants her cast in the role of a female psychiatrist–which, over and above everything else, she’s totally wrong for!) Complicating things all the more is how once they go into rehearsals, Valenti has assigned his strong-armed ‘enforcer’, “Cheech”, to ‘watch over’ Olive and keep her away from the ‘bad elements’ one finds flitting around the footlights. If all this wasn’t strange and stressful enough for our young would-be Playwright, as the show struggles through its natural development process which any shows goes through, Shayne is flabbergasted to realize that it’s Cheech—not himself—who keeps coming up with the best ideas for improving the play. Meanwhile, the show’s real Leading Lady, an aging (and heavy drinking) diva named “Helen Sinclair”, tries to seduce the younger David, despite his already having a girlfriend named “Ellen”, whilst the rakish (in his own mind anyway) Leading Man, “Warner Purcell”, has his eye on Olive even as he tries to keep his constant compulsive over-eating hidden (at least until after opening night.) Better than a “Vitaphone Variety” Short (–with real, Honest-To Goodness Sound! Can you believe it?!) or a promising Amateur heard on “Major Bowes”, this fun and funny, feel-good frolic features a book that is quintessentially “Woody Allen”–seasoned with witty sight gags, stage-bits, and one-liners, each better than the one that came before, making it one of the funniest musical librettos in recent memory. Likewise, the score—comprised of genuine songs of the 1920’s and early 30’s offers one great tune after another—not to mention some even greater reprises! Add to it, when you take into account that the original production was Directed and Choreographed by none other than Broadway Giant Susan Strohman (the force behind other Broadway musical extravaganza’s like “The Producers”, “Crazy For You” and “Young Frankenstein”,) it comes as little surprise that there is plenty of opportunities for some dynamic dance sequences, and in this regard, “One More’s” new rendering never disappoints!
“14 Years and still here,” Producer-Director Damien Lorton greeted opening night’s audience, before observing that what they were about to see was the culmination of “One More Production’s” 15 years of creating theatrical artistry, and features 18 Actors, a 15 piece orchestra, over 220 costumes, and one lively little red-headed Chihuahua named “Roxie”. As for Damien Lorton’s direction, a few choice words could be used to describe it—and all of them beginning with “F”, like “Fast”, “Fluid”, “Fun-Filled” and “Festive”—and each would be completely accurate! Once again, Lorton makes excellent use of “The Gem’s” entire auditorium and perhaps more than any other recent production there, “Bullets” benefits from the full use of the recently enlarged stage area. In addition to Mr. Lorton’s considerable contribution, Choreographer Heather Holt-Smith effectively utilizes bits of pieces of popular dances of the age (including Tap and Ballroom) to add heightened veracity to the musical numbers, while also invigorating and informing the larger story. The opening, a titillating re-envisioning of the Ragtime standard “Hold That Tiger” is performed by the “Atta Girls”—hailed by their exuberant patrons as “The Best Line in New York”. (So what if their lead chorine, “Olive Neal” is a little behind or out of step: “Where I come from in New Jersey, we don’t have no Left or Right” she complains.) It’s campy, its corny and it’s an awesome way to start things off, fittingly ‘launching’ the show with a roar and establishing the times, environment and a few of the main figures we’ll be visiting for the next few hours. There’s even a cadre of dazzling dancing “Thugs”, “Wise-Guys”, “Made-Men” and “Guidos” ‘Buck-and Winging’ with the best of them over the course of “Tain’t Nobody’s Business If I Do”, before the ladies return again to enthrall and amaze with their highly energetic collective interpretation of “I’ll Be Glad When You’re Dead You Rascal You” just before the eye-popping Act Break, “Runnin’ Wild”, (which itself is another outstanding group endeavor—even rising to the level of a full-blown Show-stopper!) As the excited company head to Boston for their ‘out of town’ tryout, we see that “Cheech” is taking over as the true author of our Hero’s play, bringing changes that actually make it a better and more believable drama. Exploring all the backstage intrigues between the over-eager actors from our play-within-the-play, this number also instigates a spirited dance break featuring crimson-garbed Train attendants (or “Red Caps”) making innovative use of the good old elementary “Shim-Sham” tap-shuffle to convey the train’s locomotion. Especially worthy of notice is Miss Maneesa Batarse, who’s a standout hoofer giving over with a dynamite tap-solo at the number’s zenith. (Indeed, it’s worth seeing the entire show all over again for just this electrifying number alone!) Moreover, the concluding chanson, “Yes, We Have No Bananas” sung by the full-cast and giving virtually all of them their moments with various verses, serves as the perfect (and perfectly nutty) exclamation point to the entire proceedings!
As the young dramatist around whom all the action revolves, Alex Bodrero—a familiar player on “The Gem Stage” in recent seasons, is “David Shayne”. He is the backbone of the entire show and never falters or disappoints, and his performance enhances the already strong story. Of course, anyone who’s witnessed some of his previous performances are already aware that he has an impressive voice but in this particular role he gets to show-off some impeccable comic timing to boot! His reprise of “Gee Baby, Ain’t I Good To You” provides a nifty introduction to his character, while later, he exudes smoothness and suavity with his part of “I’m Sitting On Top Of The World”–sung on the first day of “David’s “play’s rehearsal, as this young Auteur’s dreams of theatrical fame and fortune seem to be coming to fruition. Conversely, in Act Two once that dream starts to resemble more of a nightmare, he gives a frantic and frenzied (but equally compelling) rendition of “The Panic Is On” that’s most decidedly worth waiting for. Joining him is Nicole Cassesso as “Olive”, giving us yet another award-worthy characterization in our “Miss Neal”: “I want outa this lousy chorus!” she growls at Valenti, letting him know how she feels about her current job on no uncertain terms. It’s really fairly riveting to see this consummate and Award Winning performer playing one who is clearly in over her head when it comes to portraying a female Psychiatrist. When she meets “David” (once he reluctantly agrees to Valenti’s proviso to cast her in the show,) oozing her best “Morning After/Pre Walk Of Shame” charm, “Olive’s” audacious “audition” is arguably the all-out uninhibited highlight of the show–a burlesque ballad euphemistically dubbed “The Hot Dog Song”. Loaded with hot and saucy double-entendres, she coos: “I called it ‘interpretive dancing, because the audience used to interpret it one way, and the Catholic Church interpreted it another!” As the play’s rehearsal progresses, puzzled by all the academic references and fifty-cent words the dialogue for her part entails, Olive fumes at one point: “What does ‘Alienation’ even mean?! If someone is ‘Alienated’ can they still have Children?” Best of all this part gives Cassesso full reign to exercise all her formidable talents as a singer, dancer and comedienne.
Robert Edward also does an exceptional job as the Mafioso with a surprising aptitude for writing discerning dialogue, “Cheech”. Initially revealed driving a sleek red convertible with some poor slob in the trunk who’s about to get ‘silenced’, this also gives us our first taste of Edwards’ song-styling capability and his rich Baritone as he croons a few disarmingly easy-going refrains of “Up The Lazy River”. Subsequently, we hear this same resonant voice—now with just a rasping touch of menace–as he puts it into the service of “Tain’t Nobody’s Business If I Do”, which has “Cheech” explaining his philosophy behind what he does for his mob bosses, while backed by a band of his high-stepping Cosa-Nostra Compadres. After intermission, he strikes gold again with Sophie Tucker’s classic, “There’ll Be Some Changes Made”. Having uncovered the tryst between Olive and Purcell, “Cheech” is duty bound to put an end to it. This prompts his ‘Bel Canto’ Beat-down with the bloated Actor using the words of the song to coerce him. Though it’s well sung and impressive enough, it’s their raucous dance interlude that sees the presently plus-sized Purcell tossed around that makes this one a true-blue comic masterpiece! “Cheech” is also one of the better, more layered, roles in Musical Comedy and Edwards does a sublime job demonstrating—often subtly, “Cheech’s” inner obsession as he begins to take ownership of his revision work. This eventually leads him to see that if the play (and him) are to succeed it can only happen if “Olive” (the widely acknowledged weak link in this chain) is no longer a part of it, which motivates him to do what’s necessary no matter how extreme —such as another reprise of “Up The Lazy River” (this time with her in tow!)
Sparkling up there with them is Beth Hansen who adds a further jewel of a role into her already auspicious crown of those she’s played, as the ostentatious, over-the-top and uproariously overblown (if financially on her uppers) ‘Diva’, “Helen Sinclair”: “If you’re going down, go down on the best—uh, WITH the best!” She exclaims when explaining why she would ‘stoop’ to appear in David’s new play. Adept at tossing off the many gag-lines and snappy remarks Allen’s script practically runs on, combined with her pristine vocal quality and timbre (which is also well-suited for this role,) think of Hansen’s approach as something akin to “Eleonora Dusé” or “Helena Modjeska” meets “Memphis Minnie”! Her opening salvo, “They Go Wild Simply Wild Over Me” is an A-Plus–PLUS intro. to our Gal “Helen”, and Ms. Hansen hits every punch-line with an Olympic Marksman’s precision! (Listen close and you might even hear a sly ‘42nd Street”/”Julian Marsh” allusion mixed into her rapid-fire, pun-a-minute exposition.) Shortly after, her ‘advice’ to David, “There’s A Broken Heart For Every Light On Broadway” is appropriately melodramatic as she looks at the fledgling Director/Playwright with all the subtle longing of a starving vulture: “I’m a dipsomaniac,” she breezes of her own habit of drinking hip-flasks full of homemade hooch fermented from things like Lighter-Fluid and Paint-Thinner (–this was in the midst of Prohibition after all;) “Why shouldn’t I be a nymphomaniac as well?” (Either way, as this number builds to its climax, it’s an incredible moment for all involved.)
Peter Crisafulli also makes a colossal splash in oh, so many side-splitting ways as the flamboyant thespian and “God Of Our Father’s” ‘Leading Man’, “Warner Purcell”. At first glance, he may seem like your average ‘ham’ Actor, but given his compulsive and closeted (or so he thinks) eating habit, he constantly seems to have his mouth full with some tasty tidbit–including dog biscuits if nothing else is handy! By the second half, his part has swelled along with the rest of him (and now has him in a fat suit that has to be seen to be believed!) The result is…shall we say, absolutely ‘gut-busting’? And Crisafulli certainly makes the most of his time in the spot-light—thin or thick. Upon meeting his comely (or, put more precisely, ‘come hither’) new cast-mate Olive, he makes a play for her (behind the back of her omnipresent but distracted ‘Bodyguard’,) which gives rise to their bubbly duet, Cole Porter’s “Let’s Misbehave”, which Allen also used as the theme song for his 1972 movie ‘tour-de-farce’, “Everything You Wanted To Know About Sex…But Were Afraid To Ask”. Worthy of note (–and lots of applause too,) is Kat Gutierrez as David’s not-always-so-devoted Girlfriend, “Ellen”. Similarly gifted with an elegant 1930’s “Lux Radio Hour” type of vocalizing, she makes each of her numbers instantly and authentically “standouts”, scoring first with “Blues My Naughty Baby Gives Me”. A sharp and nicely delivered declaration, through it she bristles with impatience over her Playwright Beau’s chronic postponement of their nuptials, until Bodrero joins in and it becomes a Jazzy dual triumph: “Marriage is a very serious decision,” he tells her; “…like Suicide!” (Just wait until her crescendo at the very end to understand loudly and clearly what makes this one so stirring and memorable!) She next thrills us with “I’ve Found A New Baby” reminding us once again of just how powerful a voice and humongous talent this little lass has at her disposal. Late in the show, she returns for a conciliatory pairing with Bodrero (one of several they share), this time for their united (if brief) take on the romantic standard, “She’s Funny That Way”. Brianna Garmon too, is as perky as a puppy (with a real puppy to match,) as “Eden Brent”. No light-weight herself when it comes to having a big-league singing talent, she readily proves this to laudable effect with “There’s A New Day Coming” which launches the second act. Right there in her arms most of the time is “Roxie Lorton”, a six-year-old Chihuahua who plays her canine-comrade/furry-fashion accessory, “Mr. Woofles”, inspiring numerous smiles and chuckles from the audience while stealing more than a few scenes (–but always in the best of ways!)
With a cozy and more intimate theater like “The Gem” it’s easy to notice (and be delighted by) all the smaller touches, and this, like many other recent productions which that stage has featured, is definitely no exception. Take for instance, how throughout intermission, over the loudspeakers is heard lots of vintage “Hit Parade” tunes and snippets of old radio skits and bits dating from the period. Once the houselights dim, under the skillful baton of Conductor Kevin Homma, the fifteen piece “Band Of Renown” (situated upstage center and remaining on-stage the entire time) oversees and accompanies this funny, fabulous and (at times) frenetic free-for-all. The “Steel-Girder and Brick” set design and related motif by Wally Huntoon also scores a direct hit, not only furnishing all the goings-on with a decisive playing-space in which to unfold, but also in reflecting the now iconic New York City skyline itself, which was just starting to take familiar shape during this decade, while also pointing toward the ‘symbolic’ production of a play (as happens with all Bound For Broadway shows in development.) The terrific old 1930’s costume designs by Larry Watts also deserve a hearty ovation in their own right, whether they’re the skimpy burlesque attire of the “Atta Girls” at the start, the slick Damon Runyon-esque pin-striped suits and wide-brimmed fedoras of the “Gangster” crowd, or the emblematic red-vests with train-track patterns in front, sported by the female porters in “Good Old New York”. Each help recall our fondly remembered cinematic ‘illusions’ which many among us maintain of what these days were like.
Running wild, or running scared, this is categorically, a runaway hit for One More Productions—worthy of seeing twice or even more! Having officially opened on Saturday, February 24th, “Bullets Over Broadway” is slated to play through Sunday, March 18th, 2018 at “The Gem Theatre’ located at: 12852 on historic Main Street in Garden Grove CA. Showtimes are Thursdays through Saturdays at 8:00 PM with Sunday Matinees at 2:00 PM; there will also be an additional Saturday Matinee at 2:00 PM on March 10th , while a special “College Night” has been added on Thursday, March 1st at 8:00 PM, at which Students can purchase $15 discounted tickets with a valid Student ID, then participate in a “Talk Back” session with the cast and crew following the performance. Tickets for all performances may be obtained by calling (714) 741-9550, ext. 221, or on-line by logging onto: http://www.onemoreproductions.com. ; Special discounts for seniors, children (12 and under) are being offered for this engagement, while reduced-price “Student Rush” tickets are also available for Thursdays and Fridays performances.
Production Stills By Lisa Scarsi, Courtesy Of Lisa Scarsi Photography (firstname.lastname@example.org ) Shoko Araki And “One More Productions” (www.onemoreproductions.com) Special Thanks To Shoko Araki, Lisa Scarsi, Damien Lorton, Nicole Cassesso, And To The Cast & Crew Of One More Productions’ 2018 Southern California Premiere Production Of “Bullets Over Broadway” For Making This Story Possible.