This was minutes after I’d finished watching Alan Parker’s 1976 film, a spoof of Prohibition-era speakeasies and the gangsters and molls who loved them.
Parker’s gimmick was that children would play all the roles. They include Bugsy, our narrator who’s smitten with Blousey Brown, the small-town lass who comes to the Big City to find fame, fortune and a fella; Fat Sam, the speakeasy owner who falls for a set-up engineered by Dandy Dan, his chief rival; Tallulah, Bugsy’s old flame who wants to turn up the heat up again – only to find that Bugsy has moved on to Blousey and is intent on making her show biz dreams come true. If only the hard-bitten Blousey would have confidence in him!
Seeing a film full of little peanuts of grammar and middle school age snarling at each other and acting tough is sidesplittingly funny. But the screenplay also demanded machine-gun battles that routinely occurred in these illegal Roaring ‘20s watering holes. Parker ameliorated the violence by eschewing bullets in favor of whipped cream. Once that was shot out of those guns, more faces sported cream pies than you’d find in a Mack Sennett silent.
Now, however, I was to see the show live. Wouldn’t all that whipped cream not only make for a messy stage, but also a dangerous one? This could very well be a production in which “Break a leg!” would turn out to be a prediction.
En route, as I’m listening to the original cast album and relishing Paul Williams’ excellent pastiche score, the solution occurs to me.
And darn if the same thought hadn’t occurred to BUGSY’s director Mary A. Iannelli.
Silly String, in case you escaped this minor-level torture device during your own childhood, comes from an aerosol spray can. Once the button atop the can is pushed, a thin, colorful and steady projectile stream is unleashed. The messy substance (official name: chlorofluorocarbon) isn’t too difficult to detach from clothes and hair, and its removal is usually accompanied by laughs from both from The Stringer and The Stringee.
Iannelli does have the gunk come from guns that, thank the Lord, barely resemble firearms; these are rods in the literal sense. Still, in this era when we’re very concerned about guns and gun control, I’d advise those staging BUGSY MALONE – be it the full-length or Jr. version – to simply have the kids pull out cans of Silly String and spray away. It will help the underlying mood of the show, which is designed to offer freewheeling nonsensical fun.
In that absurdist spirit, cast your lads least likely to be convincing gangsters as Dandy Dan or Fat Sam — and hope that they’re as good as Adam Kaunfer and James Lynch are. While Kaunfer has the physical gravitas to play Fat Sam, you needn’t look for a corpulent lad for the role. After all, if “Tiny” is an ironic nickname often given to a quite overweight person, why can’t Fat Sam be a thin-as-a-reed kid? It buttresses the show’s craziness.
All right, so much for guns. But drinking illegal hooch went on in speakeasies, didn’t it? Iannelli happily keeps that activity to a bare minimum, and a kid rarely lifts a glass or a flask. Still, if we have guns that shoot non-bullets, why not have drinks that are clearly non-alcoholic? If I were staging the show – and I swear I’m not being paid for product placement – I’d use bottles of Moxie (if that soft drink can be found in your neck of the woods). There’s a nice double-meaning here, for the word “moxie” is also slang for “force of character, determination or nerve,” and it fits what these characters want to have.
Joanne in COMPANY famously asks, “Does anyone still wear a hat?” In BUGSY MALONE, JR., every lad does: a fedora which should be available in many thrift shops. Suits, of course, were the unofficial uniforms of gangsters, all to provide an elegance that these thugs don’t natively have. Send the boys to their closets at home and they should be able to come up with the requisite wear, unless, of course, parents are loathe to have their kids wear their “good clothes” on stage.
Getting the correct clothes for the girls, however, will be substantially harder. Where does one get flapper dresses for more than a dozen girls in this day and age? There was a time when one only needed to visit Grandma and Grandpa’s attics, but now a visit there is far more likely to yield miniskirts, go-go boots and headbands.
Nevertheless, Iannelli proves that the challenge is not impossible to meet, for she’s managed to find dresses with enough fringes to put atop every surrey in a year’s worth of productions of Oklahoma! Wearing her flapper dress with extra-special authority is the dynamic Ashleigh Poszyler, who portrays Blousey. The lass expertly captures this tough cookie full of bile — especially when she snarls to Bugsy (the charming Mark Lynch) “Keep your jokes behind your teeth.”
Speakeasies were also famous for floor shows, but their choreography wasn’t terribly demanding. As the girls prove, if you put one arm akimbo, bend one knee and then bounce up and down, you’ve got yourself a dance.
If you know the cult film of BUGSY, you’ll find that eight of its ten songs have been included in this Jr. version. Only “I’m Feeling Fine” and “So You Want to Be a Boxer?” have been cut; “That’s Why They Call Him Dandy Dan,” added for the 1997 London stage production, has been inserted here.
One of the retained film songs is “Tomorrow Never Comes” sung by the janitor, a young black man who quietly comments on how minorities don’t get their fair chances to pursue their dreams. Here Iannelli gives it to a girl (the fine Alexis Page) which works well, for women didn’t have all that many more opportunities than blacks in the ‘20s (or, for that matter, for decades to come). Page also serves a valuable function by sweeping the stage and ridding the premises of the excess Silly String.
But does BUGSY MALONE glorify illegal and immoral activity, guns and violence? One could view it that way, but a shrewd director will make the point that gangsters and their ilk are basically childish people. They’re not smart enough to know that outlaws ultimately work harder in their “careers” than those work-a-days who stay within the law. These well-named “goons” are the type to get insulted over nothing at all and fight to uphold their so-called “honor” when they have none. Mockery is what they deserve, and mockery is what BUGSY MALONE gives them.
Meanwhile, if your theater company has no children’s company and is thinking of starting one, a visit to a troupe like The Theatre Project Jr. may well convince you to begin. What a pleasure to see kids giving their all. At the start of the show, Bugsy says to us, “By the final curtain, everything will be okay – and we’ll learn a thing or two along the way.” Think how much these kids have learned in their eight weeks of rehearsal! Iannelli did well in instilling discipline down to every ensemble member.
She also found her future leading man in young Gerard Lang. This kid doesn’t just sing the words, but proves from his intonations that he knows the meaning and implication of every one.
Children’s theater is famous for having at least one girl or boy on stage who has that dead deer-in-the-headlights look of “Oh, wait! What do we say now? Is this when we move? And where exactly do we go?” Lang instead anticipates everything he’s been directed to do down to each finger-snap. He’s taking every moment of it seriously, and such a work ethic will superbly serve him throughout his life. Give your kids the same opportunity.
You may e-mail Peter at firstname.lastname@example.org. Check out his weekly column each Tuesday at www.masterworksbroadway.com and each Friday at www.kritzerland.com. His new book, Strippers, Showgirls, and Sharks – a Very Opinionated History of the Broadway Musicals That Did Not Win the Tony Award is now available at www.amazon.com.