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Theatre in Review: Broadway Bounty Hunter (Barrow Street Theater)

Annie Golden and company. Photo: Matthew Murphy.

If anyone on Broadway is capable of bounty hunting, it's Annie Golden: No other musical theatre performer is better equipped to track down her quarry and bring 'em back alive. Still going strong after lo these many years -- her résumé reaches back to the 1977 revival of Hair as well as the 1979 film -- she has been the Golden girl in any production lucky enough to procure her services. I treasure the memory of her as Lynette "Squeaky" Fromme in the original production of Assassins, a role that traded brilliantly on both her default demeanor -- a lost moppet with eyes by Margaret Keane -- and a voice that can knock down tall buildings with a single note. (There was also her career as a punk rocker, knocking them dead at CBGB; really, what can't she do?) Rarely, if ever, the star of a show, now she has a vehicle of her own, a kooky, one-of-a-kind stunt that casts her in the role of...Annie Golden. If the result is something of a mixed blessing, it's fun to see her at center stage, where she belongs.

Broadway Bounty Hunter asks the question, What happens if you insert a veteran theatre actress into an exploitation action musical with a score that channels the 1970s funk sounds of Isaac Hayes and his ilk? The fictional Annie Golden has more or less the same career as her real-life counterpart but for the fact that she is downtrodden, a widow, and facing the wolf at the door. (Not for her a SAG Award for her long-running role on Orange is the New Black.) The knockout opening number, "Woman of Certain Age," details the hundred and one humiliations that dog her day, from disrespectful ingenues to directors who cruelly note her vintage headshot to supers who invade her apartment and drink her gin. As she sadly notes in the number "Spin Those Records," "I used to be new/Everyone would cheer when I'd start to sing/And the papers called me the next big thing." Right around this time, Con Ed cuts off her power.

Annie's fortunes take a dramatic turn when she is kidnapped and taken to Shiro Jin, who runs the "only female-run bounty-hunting agency in the city." ("We progressive as fuck," adds one of her male staffers, not quite grammatically.) For reasons not made immediately clear, Shiro Jin persuades Annie that she has tremendous potential in the field and should undergo training; after all, what has she to lose? Like any theatre professional, she draws on her experience with Uta Hagen, Kristin Linklater, and the Alexander Technique. But when she demonstrates real potential, Lazarus, the agency's leading tough guy -- a grim-visaged hunk of masculinity out of a Shaft picture -- is unhappy about being paired with a middle-aged female forever in search of her character's motivation. She quickly learns to push back; after one particularly hostile dustup, she snaps, "I feel like I'm working with Mandy Patinkin again!"

A combination of grindhouse-movie tropes, inside-Broadway gags, and a score that is pure hot buttered soul -- all in service of a female-empowerment theme -- Broadway Bounty Hunter has a nutty originality even if it doesn't always know when to quit. The book, by Joe Iconis, Lance Rubin, and Jason Sweettooth Williams, sends Annie on a car trip to Ecuador in search of a nefarious drug dealer. ("I haven't been on the road this long since the Xanadu tour," she complains, once again setting Lazarus on edge.) The villain, Mac Roundtree -- a tip of the hat to blaxploitation film king Richard Roundtree -- runs a "ho house" populated with a colorful gang of floozies out of a Roger Corman picture. But the first act ends with a twist -- involving Mr. Roundtree's real identity -- that proves the writers will try anything to keep their plot boiling, even uncorking a plot to enslave all of Broadway with a performance-enhancing drug designed to facilitate fifteen-performance weeks. Or, as Mr. Roundtree puts it, "I'm talking 'bout/Stamina/Vocal range/Turning little theatre queens/Into powerhouse machines."

This sort of lightheaded musical farce is trickier than it looks -- it requires real discipline if the audience is going to buy these screwball doings and go along for the ride. Broadway Bounty Hunter is gifted with a wisecracking wit and plenty of musical smarts, but it hard-sells its premise in one high-pressure number after another. (The sound designer, Cody Spencer, acts as an enabler, turning up the volume at the slightest provocation.) Iconis' songs have a real seventies sass -- Charlie Rosen's orchestrations include wah-wah pedal effects that will really take you back -- but they tend to build relentlessly, overwhelming the action rather than helping it along. If the show ever paused, just for a section, to catch its breath and let us feel a little something for Annie and Lazarus, one could relax and enjoy oneself. Instead, everyone keeps cranking up the volume, a strategy that only exposes the show's thinness and ramshackle plotting. By the climax of Act II, I was mostly watching the actors' veins popping as they shouted their lines.

Still, there's Golden, looking utterly lost -- as if unsure where she is or what she's doing -- until she unleashes that voice, which begins as a rumble somewhere in the sub-basement and rises to gale force. It's not really a spoiler to say that, as she discovers, singing is her superpower, but everything she does is thoroughly delectable. As Lazarus, the sensationally gifted Alan H. Green makes a perfect partner in crimefighting, whether casting deadly glances, delivering deadpan laughs, or rattling the eaves with his own personal wall of sound. Emily Borromeo strikes steely poses as the disingenuous, ulterior Shiro Jin, which is all that the script requires, and as Mac Roundtree, Brad Oscar threatens to devour the stage in a single gulp. Christina Sajous adds some pizazz as Janessa, a resident of the "ho house" who works her aggressive technique on Lazarus, even if her number is largely unnecessary.

The script has its moments throughout, including a scene from Young People, a wicked spoof of the teen musicals that have taken Broadway hostage (and of which, as the composer of Be More Chill, Iconis is a prime perpetrator). Jennifer Werner's direction has its sly touches -- as when Annie first appears, holding her headshot in front of her face, like a cast-of-one version of A Chorus Line -- and she doesn't shy away from staging a production number with a nunchuck-wielding chorus -- an idea that is impressive and a little bit alarming. Michael Schweikhardt's set covers the walls of the theatre with supergraphics and Brad Peterson's video design delivers any number of vividly silk-screened views of New York City and elsewhere. (His photomontage for the finale -- a festival of spoilers not to be revealed here -- is one of the most amusing things in the show.) The lighting designers, Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer, have sneaked LED battens into every free spot on the set, the better to bathe the action in Technicolor washes. Sarafina Bush's costumes are an amusing collection of B-movie ideas, especially the garish outfits for the ladies of the ho house.

Broadway Bounty Hunter concludes with a new Annie, energized and empowered and ready to strike terror into the hearts of directors everywhere. Even if I can't entirely endorse her new musical, this is a proposition that we can all get behind. --David Barbour

(24 July 2019)

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