The first thing I look for when I attend any fledgling theater for the first time is a will to do good work. The Resident Theatre Company, establishing itself in West Chester, certainly has it. Its production of Woody Allen’s “Bullets Over Broadway” seemed polished beyond some of the physical shortcomings of its venue, such as a stingily low proscenium height, introduced several delightful, unfamiliar talents, kept a brisk, engaging pace, and gave the region in general the chance to enjoy what I feared would become a neglected piece.
BULLETS OVER BROADWAY didn’t get the reception it deserved when it opened on Broadway. Allen was criticized for cobbling a score from existing music instead of writing a fresh one, as if that matters beyond what pundits think it’s clever to say, and attitudes towards Allen and his style of humor have changed course since “Bullets” debuted as a movie in 1994. Currently, Allen is the subject of the neo-McCarthyism that keeps his latest movie, “A Rainy Day in New York,” from being released because today’s Puritans are more concerned with an artist’s personal life than his or her talent or work.
Allen has a great knowledge of music, and many of his choices for “Bullets” are witty, and they’re always appropriate, particularly when Cheech, a hit man with a literary bent, signals his assassinations by crooning “Up a Lazy River.”
In plot and dialogue, “Bullets Over Broadway” is flat-out funny, Allen being keen enough to know when to surprise with a rejoinder or deliver with full effect exactly the bon mot that’s expected. Of course, there’ are plenty of ironic, self-effacing, and cutting jokes that entertain and remind you why Allen ranks among America’s greatest humorists, even if fashion is currently running against him.
Kristin McLaughlin Mitchell’s direction is strong in bringing out humor and characterization. Her production hums along, even during some involved scenery changes, and is aided mightily by Dann Dunn’s lively choreography. The aim of “Bullets Over Broadway” is to provide some naughty, amoral, ironic fun, and the Resident troupe accomplishes that well. They get the brightness of the piece and can be broadly comic without overdoing it or seeming to force or self-consciously present Allen’s jokes. On the contrary, the cast was adept in making the gag lines seem natural to their characters and their voices. Exaggerated as “Bullets Over Broadway” intentionally is, Resident’s domestic scenes, rehearsal scenes, romantic scenes, and nightclub scenes retain a core of reality amid the shtick and the laughs.
Tyler Hatch (Cheech), Karis Gallant (Olive), Robert Anthony Jones (Warner), Bailey Seeker (Ellen), and Michael Berry (David) all did such impressive jobs, I’d be eager to see them perform again. The stickout, though, was one of the region’s established leading ladies, Jennie Eisenhower, who endowed the diva Broadway star, Helen Sinclair, with the requisite boundless ego while bringing her down to earth in some key scenes, mainly those in which David Shayne’s play is being rehearsed, and alternated nicely and with canny distinction between fiery and pragmatic romance.
Eisenhower brings her distinguishing luster without diminishing anyone else’s star. This is not Act II’s “Kiss Me Kate” in which she seemed to be the only person, including the director, who knew what the show was about. In “Bullets,” Eisenhower’s polish and the big effect of it gives ‘zazz to Mitchell’s staging while being in keeping with Helen’s own status and flair for visible presence and oversized drama.
Eisenhower gives professional tone to the show, She also makes Helen seem real. All of the roles in “Bullets” can stray easily into caricature or stereotypes. Eisenhower conveys the foibles and desire for attention that is endemically part of Helen, but she wraps this within total portrayal instead of letting gloss take over and do all of the work. Eisenhower makes particularly great use of the voice she chooses for Helen. Its lush, pear-shaped tones serve the character as a diva in her personal realm and as the actress playing melodrama in the play to which she lends her celebrity.
Her castmates follow suit. Karis Gallant balanced the irritating stridency, demanding nature, and inescapable crudeness of Olive Neal, the gun moll who wants to be a Broadway star and becomes one by having her mob kingpin boyfriend muscle her in after financing the show, by making you believe Olive is a creature who could exist on Earth, a la Lina Lamont or Billie Dawn, rather than a stock floozy. Gallant captures Olive’s ambition while also conveying her delusion and willingness to force her way. I’ve seen “Bullets” three times, and Gallant did a better job of keeping Olive from being a type than her Broadway or touring counterparts did.
Michael Berry keeps David likeable even when he’s being despicable. You see the playwright learning to go along with ropes his integrity originally insists he sever, and you see him growing in to a Broadway dandy that is more exciting than anything he can achieve via integrity. It’s fun to watch Berry’s David opening to the suggestions of the more intuitive Cheech about how to give a play the common touches that will earn it praise as literature while assuring its appeal to the public .
Tyler Hatch never relinquishes the mobster’s persona as Cheech. The bluntness for which Cheech is known serves Hatch well both as a mob enforcer and as a natural critic and play doctor who improves David’s Broadway-bound work.
Hatch is best at finding Cheech’s nonchalance. He is easygoing about killing and in his stride with playwriting. This is a guy who says it like it is as an observer and does the job he’s paid to do as a gunsel. Only bad acting makes Cheech violent beyond his profession. Hatch and Gallant each make you endorse Cheech’s instincts and the steps he takes as a proud, if uncredited, author.
In addition to those mentioned, fine work was turned in by Maggie Griffin-Smith. Paul Weagraff, and Vincent D’Elia. Derek Leo Miller stood out among Dunn’s nimble chorus, which had great moments with “Tain’t a Fit Night Out for Man or Beast,” “There’ll Be Some Changes Made,” and “Good Old New York.”
[Resident Theatre Company, Uptown! Knauer Performing Arts Center, 226 N. High Street, West Chester] March 30-April 15, 2018; rtcwc.org