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The Play-Goer: Annapolis Summer Garden Theatre’s Bullets Over Broadway

Come for the songs

photo courtesy of Annapolis Summer Garden Theater

       When Woody Allen’s movie Bullets Over Broadway opened in 1994, it received mostly positive reviews. Then Allen decided to make it a Broadway musical — without original music. Instead, standards from the 1920s and 1930s were inserted throughout. The result: tepid reviews and a short run of just 100 performances, despite a slew of Tony nominations.

         This story about a playwright whose show will be staged only if a key role goes to the girlfriend of the gangster fronting the money has the occasional laugh, and it receives a lively showing at Annapolis Summer Garden Theater. Go to see some enjoyable singing and dancing, but don’t expect another The Producers. Woody Allen just doesn’t compare with Mel Brooks in the Broadway blockbuster category.

         With a beautiful two-tiered art deco set and gorgeous costumes, this is one of the better-looking plays Annapolis Summer Garden Theatre has produced. The live nine-piece orchestra, led by Ken Kimble, is as good as I’ve heard here, especially considering the care required to do these classic songs justice. From Tiger Rag to Up a Lazy River to T-Aint Nobody’s Bizness to so many more, the singers and the songs are nurtured by this tight band, never overpowered. Same goes for the dance numbers, driven with energy by Kimble and crew.

         Fine performances are nothing new at 52-year-old Summer Garden Theatre; this play has several. As David Shayne, the playwright whose show has been saddled with a ditzy untalented blonde, Trevor Greenfield is appropriately tense and jittery, yet somehow in command. When he breaks into song he displays a soaring tenor voice on numbers such as I’ve Found a New Baby, with Emma Godfrey as girlfriend Ellen, and The Panic Is On.

         At the other end of the vocal spectrum is the beautiful baritone of Jeffrey Hawkins as Cheech, the gangster’s right-hand man, who ends up being a pretty good rewrite man and whose Up a Lazy River is a highlight. Traci Denhardt as aging diva Helen Sinclair, John Purnell as Warner Purcell and Kirsti Dixon as Eden Brent — all actors who put up with the gangster’s moll —are each worthy of note as well, funny and animated. And veteran actor Jerry Vess gives the gangster, Nick Valenti just the right mix of comedy and menace.

         As the blonde moll, Olive Neal, Caitlyn Ruth McClellan has physical comedy moves and comedic timing, but may want to dial back the screechy voice lest it wear out before the four-week run of this show. That voice is a part of the character as written, but modulation can be funny too.

         Director Clare Shaffer has done a fine job of utilizing the two-story stage and of incorporating women into men’s roles (I imagine not enough men auditioned). Opening night had a few moments of imprecision among the dancers and strange noises in the sound system, not to mention one particularly ill-fitting outfit. But the fact is that the recent pouring rains took a real bite out of rehearsal times. These things tend to tighten up as a run goes on.

         So see Bullets Over Broadway to enjoy some great old songs sung by some talented voices accompanied by a driving band. Don’t worry if a joke or two falls flat. It’s not their fault; it’s Woody Allen’s. There’s always another great song around the corner.

         Choreographer: Pauline Lamb. Music director: Rachel Sandler. Sound designer: Bill Reinhardt. Costume designer: Megan Scott. Set designer: Dan Snyder

         Playing thru June 16: Th-Su plus W June 13 8:30pm; about two and one half hours with one intermission, $25, rsvp: www.summergarden.com