BroadwayBountyHunter,Book by Joe Iconis, Lance Rubin and Jason SweetTooth Williams. Music and Lyrics by Joe Iconis. Directed by Julianne Boyd. Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman.
[Center] Annie Golden and Alan H. Green; photo: Scott Barrow
". . .struggling to find your groove."
Annie Golden and Alan H. Green; photo: Scott Barrow
At two hours and two minutes, including the intermission, the world premiere musical on the second stage at Barrington Stage Company's Blatt Center - Broadway Bounty Hunter - opens shrouded in mystery, which for a musical mystery play is just one more element adding to the delights on view. On August 12 a press release announced that the company's Artistic Director Julianne Boyd was replacing original director Leah C. Gardiner who had been with the show at least from the beginning of rehearsals "due to creative differences." In actuality the change-over took place on August 6 when Boyd started to helm the musical. Gardiner directed last year's Barrington hit, Veils." The first preview, scheduled for that same night, had been cancelled and the first performance moved to the following night, August 13. The program in hand tells us that the show was also developed at Weston's Artists Retreat, Rhinebeck Writers Retreat (which in March 2015 presented Annie Golden and Jeff McCarthy in a staged reading in New York City of this show directed by Gardiner), Goodspeed Musicals Johnny Mercer Writers Colony, CAP21, and Ars Nova. Here in Pittsfield it is indicated as a product of William Finn's Musical Theatre Lab at Barrington Stage. That's quite a lot of input for a new show.
The show is based, in concept, on the Blacksploitation movies of the 1970s in combination with our more recent spate of reality television concepts. Annie Golden, known to many for her singing, her Broadwayshows, and her television work, plays an out-of-work actress "of a certain age" named Annie Golden who ends up losing more work and then being recruited into an oriental ninja-like organization of bounty hunters and set loose with a partner named Lazarus, played by Alan H. Green, to seek out an arch-villain named Mac Roundtree (Jeff McCarthy). Off she goes with her Broadway experience and her newly acquired ninja skills to do the job. That's pretty much the story except for the plot twists and unanticipated surprises that set this show apart from any run-of-the-mill musical adaptation of something from that period of films. This is an original top to bottom and it is a choice experience with oceans of laughs and lots of great dancing (thanks to Jeffrey Page) and fight choreography (courtesy Ryan Winkles). There is romance, danger, multi-racial interaction and an ending we'll call happy, because we were all happy at the end and sat in the theater hoping it would be a double feature.
Jeff McCarthy is a long-time Barrington Stage Company star, having played Sweeny Todd, Cervantes, Mack Sennett and a host of other characters including a cross-dressing, gender-challenged heroine in Southern Comfort. In this show he is essentially two characters wrapped up in one, slightly reminiscent of a character in the film Travels With My Aunt and definitely identifiable as a personality with personality difficulties. He is the villain and a delectable villain at that. Unlike Richard Roundtree, the actor who played the title role in three films about a black detective named Shaft and is still identified strongly with the blaxsploitation movement in that era, McCarthy's villain is all white and all evil and his double-dealing with Annie (the character, not the actress whom I will refer to as Golden in the future) is enough to make you squirm in your seat. McCarthy plays evil whole-heartedly and he is both touching and more than a bit touched. His utter and complete sincerity about his nefarious schemes is chilling and adds another feather to the cap of this excellent actor.
Alan H. Green's Lazarus, the bounty hunter, is a lushly romantic figure from his pimpish appearance at the top of the show to his literal return from death to claim what is his by rights. Green is a heavenly vocalist and an excellent actor and he cuts his way through the bad things to emerge a hero unlike many another. He is an inspiration to Annie and as Golden plays her Annie is easily smitten by his resilient resistance to her charms. Green never plays the joke of the show, but takes it and his role in it seriously which makes his work so much more enjoyable than it might have been had he gone with the tenor of the piece.
Golden herself is a thing of odd, peculiar beauty who makes her middle-aged character into a vision of beauty as she makes Annie more and more secure in her new life. When Annie discovers how she has been betrayed by her new mentor it is refreshing to discover that it really doesn't matter because she has fallen in love with a man, with her new life and with the world that had seemed set on destroying everything for her including her self-esteem. Ever an optimist, her early scene with her answering machine, the actor's God, sets Annie up for a hard fall from which the ninjas rescue her. Golden's performance, slightly marred by a bad throat, never suffered for an instant and, in fact, made Annie a more sympathetic character.
Shiro Jin, the Japanese Ninja mentor of the corps of Bounty Hunters, has the remarkable Scott Watanabe inside him. Watanabe is wonderful in this role, deadly and devastating while still a wonderful role model for Annie and others. His revenge song in Act II is a highlight of the show.
Jeff McCarthy; photo: Scott Barrow
Scott Watanabe and Shannon Tyo (c) with the ensemble; photo: Scott Barrow
Annie Golden and Jeff McCarthy; photo: Scott Barrow
Shannon Tyo, Jason Veasey and George Salazar lead a wonderful troupe of players, including Badia Farha and Anastacia McCleskey along the path of blacksploitation. They play street people, bounty hunters, whores (known as "ho"s), and other types in the dark world of New York City and a Spanish inflected island in the 1970s. Much credit for the way this show moves is due to this group of talented actor/singer/dancers.
The six-piece band is visible and become a sort of image of the city behind a scrim. Under Joel Waggoner's direction they play the Joe Iconis score with a brittle brilliance that is so right for this piece. Timothy Mackabee's sets are great and give the show a fluidity that it so rightfully deserves. Bobby Frederick Tilley's costumes are period perfect and hilarious and Eric Southern's lighting is mood-heavy and never leaves any actor - or indeed us - in the dark. Josh Millican's sound design is loud and louder and for some reason it never bothered me at all. Nowhere in the credits is anyone made responsible for the many wigs in this show, wigs which recall everyone from Diana Sands to Diana Rigg.
Without a doubt, whoever is responsible for putting this delightful show on the stage at the Blatt Center should be rewarded with lots and lots of thick chocolate cake. And for bringing Annie Golden to this work and this stage a lot of heavy whipped cream should top that well-earned dessert. I don't know if this show could outrun TheFantasticks off-Broadway but it should be given the opportunity and as soon as possible. In a season of fascinating new shows, this one is definitely at the top of the list, a true winner in the premiere sweepstakes.
Broadway Bounty Hunter plays on the St. Germain Stage at the Sydelle and Lee Blatt Performing Art Center, Barrington Stage Company's second stage, at 36 Linden Street, Pittsfield, MA. For tickets and information call the box office at 413-236-8888 or go on line at barringtonstageco.org.