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High-velocity dancing right on target in ‘Bullets Over Broadway’

The touring cast of "Bullets Over Broadway," now at the PrivateBank Theatre. (Photo: Matthew Murphy)

It happens near the end of the first act of “Bullets Over Broadway,” the fabulously old-fashioned musical comedy spectacular that Woody Allen adapted from his hit 1994 Roaring Twenties-style gangsters-meet-theater world film folly, penned with Douglas McGrath. That’s when a gaggle of Noo Yawk-accented gangsters, dressed in charcoal suits and fedoras, begin to dance to “Tain’t Nobody’s Bizness If I Do,” one of the nearly two dozen American songbook standards of the period (the 1920s and ’30s) that form the score for the show.

Highly recommended
When: Through May 1
Where: PrivateBank Theatre, 18 W. Monroe
Tickets: $19 – $85
Info: (800) 775-2000; www.BroadwayInChicago.com
Run time: 2 hours and 30 minute,s with one intermission

Of course the crucial bit of information you must have here is that the director-choreographer of this infectious, zany, sex-art-and morality show is Susan Stroman — the kinetic genius and Tony Award-winner behind such Broadway hits as “The Producers” and “Crazy for You.” (Jeff Whiting and Clare Cook have recreated her work here.) And when Stroman choreographs a number she doesn’t fool around, just as when she directs a scene and the whole thing seems to spin on roller stakes. In this case she sets the men whirling around the stage in an extended tap-spectacular that creates a sense of wild, breathless euphoria. And Tuesday night, as the touring company of the show opened for a run at the PrivateBank Theatre, the audience erupted in the kind of sustained ovation you rarely hear for any dance number, even in “West Side Story.”

Frankly, if this were the only terrific moment in “Bullets Over Broadway” it would be enough to send you home happy. But there are a slew of them as Allen spins a story with nods to such shows as “Born Yesterday,” “Guys and Dolls” and “42nd Street.” From a chorus line of girls with the most beautiful, synchronized legs this side of The Rockettes (Mary Callahan, Elizabeth Dugas, Carissa Fiorillo, Lainee Hunter, Corinne Munsch, Kaylee Olsen and Lexie Plath), to a gathering of stock characters, to “dancing gangsters” who are beyond sensational and must be named (Jake Corcoran, Patrick Graver, Andrew Hendrick, Justin Jutras, Conor McGiffin, Brian Martin, Joey Ortolani and Ian Saunders), “Bullets Over Broadway” (with a non-Equity cast that outranks most of the Equity companies that pass this way), generates nonstop gyroscopic energy and laughter.

Cheech (James Brooks, third from left) and the rest of the "dancing gangsters" nearly steal the show with their sensational tap number in "Bullets Over Broadway." | Photo by Matthew Murphy

Cheech (James Brooks, third from left) and the rest of the “dancing gangsters” nearly steal the show with their sensational tap number in “Bullets Over Broadway.” | Photo by Matthew Murphy

The whole thing is set in motion when struggling, hyper-intellectual playwright David Shayne (Michael Williams, a dead ringer for New Yorker editor David Remnick, whose perpetual state of panic is a dance in itself), decides to sell his soul in order to have his “groundbreaking” play produced on Broadway. The deal? Cast Olive Neal (Jemma Jane, a sensational comic dancer), the sexy, demanding and talentless girlfriend of mob boss Nick Valenti (Michael Corvino), in a small role, in return for Valenti bankrolling the play. Recruited for the lead role is veteran actress/”artiste” Helen Sinclair (Emma Stratton, a mix of Jessica Lange and Maggie Smith, with a solid belt voice). A glam diva who hasn’t had a hit in several seasons, she is all affectation and has a serious taste for alcohol.

Shayne’s play turns out to be pretty inert. But Olive’s gangsterland bodyguard, Cheech (Jeff Brooks, who easily steals the show with his deadpan commentary), sits in on rehearsals and turns out to be not only a crackerjack critic (“people don’t talk like that,” he tells David), but a natural-born Damon Runyon-like playwright. And before anyone quite realizes what is happening he is feeding David a rewrite of the script that is full of life and ultimately becomes a huge success. What’s more, Cheech will not let anyone spoil what he now realizes is his Broadway creation and it’s poor Olive who pays the price for his enlarged ego. David is left riddled with guilt about his authorship, as well as the fact that he unceremoniously dumped his girlfriend, Ellen (Hannah Rose DeFlumeri, a fine actress with a lovely voice) for Helen.

Meanwhile, Olive is pursued by veteran leading man Warner Purcell (Bradley Allan Zarr in high camp), whose eating disorder turns him into a blimp, and character actress Eden Brent (Rachel Bahler) adds more campiness along with her pet pooch.

Jason Ardizzone-West’s sets are minimal but high-impact. But it’s the scores of out-of-this-world costumes by William Ivey Long (from bellhop briefs to zany tiger outfits) that win the applause. And at a moment when there is much talk of how the Tony Award for sound design has still not been reinstated, Shannon Slaton demonstrates exactly how perfect audibility works, with Robbie Cowan’s music direction of a swinging pit band among the beneficiaries in this show that is cleverly and playfully interlaced with such classics as “Let’s Misbehave,” I’m Sitting On Top Of The World,” “Runnin’ Wild,” and yes, “I Want a Hotdog for My Roll.”

Jemma Jane (center) plays Olive in the national tour of "Bullets Over Broadway." (Photo: Matthew Murphy)

Jemma Jane (center) plays Olive in the national tour of “Bullets Over Broadway.” (Photo: Matthew Murphy)