GREENBELT – Two noteworthy area productions can be described as jukebox musicals, works which weave pre-existing popular music into the script of new musical production. The first is “Bullets over Broadway” (through June 16), an outdoors production at the Annapolis Summer Garden Theatre.
The show opens with a playwright of uncertain talent struggling to produce a Broadway show. Adding to his problems is the fact that gangsters wielding .45 caliber revolvers are financing his show! This farcical setting provides the framework to stimulate the senses and the mind. Concerning the former, the show features a song list that reads like a 1920s hit parade: “Tiger Rag,” “Up a Lazy River,” “Sittin’ on Top of the World” and “Runnin’ Wild.”
Of course, some of the song lyrics have been updated to fit the situation, for example, the normally optimistic words of “There’ll Be Some Changes Made” come from the lips of a menacing gangster, in essence. In a way perhaps comparable to “West Side Story,” “Bullets” uses bright music and dance numbers as an effective counterpoint to the darker aspects of the story, making each more effective.
This musical caper also poses a moral question as well. The audience is asked to consider whether– given a choice of one or the other – it is better to save a human life, or to save all of Shakespeare’s works for posterity? At the beginning of the show, the playwright sides with saving Shakespeare. However, when a similar dilemma appears later in the production, he has a more conventional answer: human life is far important than the success of a Broadway show. It also turns out that the gangster makes ingenious changes to the show, leading us to ponder: who, in the end, creates true art – the person with the title of “artist,” or a talented (but morally reprehensible) ghostwriter?
“Bullets” has much to commend it. Jeffrey Hawkins, playing the gangster Cheech, is a standout performer, whether dancing, singing or acting. Further, the seemingly simple backdrops of wooden boards, when lit, become highly evocative streamlined art deco shapes that perfectly complement the 1920s-style dances.
Finally, the production itself invites reflection on the question of artistic work vs. artist. Over the past few months, a number of venues have canceled “Bullets over Broadway” in light of the play’s controversial author, Woody Allen, who has been accused of sexual assault. The existence of this production invites theater-goers to consider this question for themselves.
“And now for something completely different,” as they used to say on “Monty Python’s Flying Circus.”
“Return to the Forbidden Planet,” a community theater playing at the Greenbelt Arts Center through June 9, is also a jukebox musical and a frantic, occasionally Pythonesque satire, in homage to science fiction classics, especially the 1956 film “Forbidden Planet.” It is also to “Star Trek,” the Soviet-era science fiction movie “Solaris,” and similar fare. The script draws extensively from Shakespeare’s plays, discussed further below. Most of all, the production depends on the 45’s of a bygone era – not of guns, as in “Bullets over Broadway,” but of 45 RPM records.
Musical numbers include classic rock n’ roll tunes like “Great Balls of Fire,” “Shake, Rattle, and Roll,” and “Good Vibrations.” Cast members belt out their musical numbers with both talent and enthusiasm, to the delight of the audience. The cast is well-accompanied by a small live band, directed by Christine Wells. Dressed as the ship’s crewmembers, the band is on stage with the actors. The ship’s captain, ably played by Todd Hines, occasionally does double duty by playing Al Hirt-style trumpet. Costumes designed by Jeane Binney come in for special praise, as do sets wonderfully blending the retro-future 1930s reminiscent of Flash Gordon electronic panels with vintage 1950s and “Star Trek” spaceship stylistics and malt-shop swivel stools.
Shakespeare is integral to “Return to the Forbidden Planet,” loosely based on “The Tempest,” while also pulling themes and lines from “Romeo and Juliet,” “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” “Taming of the Shrew” and “King Lear.” Sometimes these themes are played seriously, while at others they are incorporated into silly puns, as when the audience groaned with delight at the phrase “To Beep or Not to Beep.” The audience was enthusiastic, even singing with some of the songs such as the “Monster Mash” and quietly humming to Connie Francis’ “Who’s Sorry Now?”
Thanks to the popular tunes, the show is accessible to all. However, those who know Shakespeare well, or who are interested in historical science fiction, may enjoy an added dimension. And, as Shakespeare wrote in “The Tempest,” “If these shadows have offended . . . If you pardon . . . all is mended.” No, wait, that’s from “A Midsummer Night’s Dream!” Oh, never mind; it hardly matters for the writers, cast, crew, and audience for the jumbled fun-fest that is “Return to the Forbidden Planet.” Countdown for blastoff!