JULY 27, 2017 – OGUNQUIT – Could a ghostwriter hitman create fully compelling art where an overpraised intellectual cannot? In the book that Woody Allen wrote for the 2014 Broadway musical, “Bullets over Broadway,’’ a tough but sensitive gangster named Cheech Campbell does just that for young Jewish playwright David Shayne. In the rapid-fire edition at the Ogunquit Playhouse through July 29, Reed Campbell’s riveting portrayal of Cheech is a high caliber standout in a rollicking revival.
Director-choreographer Jeff Whiting, overcoming the challenges of a 1920s jazz and American songbook show without a fresh score, makes the Ogunquit recreation of Susan Stroman’s acclaimed original work a true romp.
As in the movie, the story is somewhat improbable but often amusing. Producer Julian Marx, who actually makes reference to the Torah, persuades Shayne to let mob boss Jack Valenti back his play and find a role for Valenti’s theatrically untrained girlfriend, Olive Neal. Along the way, the question “Can bad people create art?” arises, one that Allen would answer “yes.”
Allen’s checkered integrity and the show’s familiar music aside, “Bullets over Broadway’’ proves a fast-paced, well-performed diversion. Reed Campbell is terrific as reflective loner Cheech, especially in an edgy, bluesy rendition of “Up a Lazy River.’’ John Rochette has the right meek body language in the early going as a novice playwright and contrasting dreaminess around premier Broadway actress Helen Sinclair. Michelle Ragusa captures Helen’s diva demeanor, while Jemma Jane catches ditsy Olive’s tenacity, particularly on the hilarious club number “The Hot Dog Song,’’ with a lyric about kosher being fine.
The supporting players are sharp-shooters as well. Sally Struthers is a hoot as unpredictable character actress Eden Brent, speaking of breastfeeding her baby stroller-riding dog one moment and flirting shamelessly with David another. John Paul Almon as over-eating actor Warner Purcell chews up every opportunity for food-connected humor. Vincent Pastore has the menace of death-dealing mobster Valenti, but also his tenderness with Olive.
Whiting’s choreography and blocking are equally well-conceived. The women’s ensemble moves vibrantly as Olive’s backup singers, the Atta-Girls, and later as Red Caps singing the praises of ‘’Good Old New York.’’ The show-stopper, though, is an eye-catching gangster tap ballet accompanying Cheech’s emphatic “Tain’t Nobody’s Biz-ness If I Do.”In playbill director’s notes, Whiting calls it the “slippery slope of [artistic] compromise.” Happily, Ogunquit Playhouse’s wonderful “Bullets over Broadway” roars with bulls-eye authenticity.
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The Talmud speaks of “Rainmaker” Abba Chilkiah and his wife praying for rain in Israel. Jewish prayer includes such a request from Shemini Atzeret until Passover. Perhaps American Jewish playwright N. Richard Nash — born Nathan Richard Nusbaum — had at least the latter factor in mind when he wrote “The Rainmaker” (1954 Broadway; 1956 film starring Katharine Hepburn and Burt Lancaster). Now Gloucester Stage Company is capturing the magic of this enchanting gem under the careful guidance of artistic director Robert Walsh.
Set on a 1930s Midwestern farm during prolonged drought, Nash’s disarming play has as much to do with the Curry family’s concern about the future of daughter/sister Lizzie as about the lack of rain. Along comes a drum-toting stranger named Bill Starbuck, who promises to make it rain in exchange for $100. Even before his promise is tested, he inspires Lizzie to believe in herself.
Jessica Bates captures Lizzie’s emotional blossoming as well as her strong will. Brian Homer has all of Bill’s charm and charisma. Joe Short is an understated standout as protective ironically named brother Noah, who doubts Starbuck’s powers.
Starbuck advises unassuming Lizzie, “Think pretty.” Area theater-goers, think the same about Gloucester Stage Company’s very satisfying “The Rainmaker,” on stage through August 5.