Here’s a checklist to see if you’re likely to enjoy Broadway Bounty Hunter: 1. You’re a major fan of theater veteran Annie Golden, currently seen on Netflix’s Orange Is the New Black. 2. You think that there just haven’t been enough spoofs of ’70s-era blaxploitation and kung-fu movies. 3. You have a love of campy musicals demanding little or no emotional engagement. 4. You’re willing to check your brain at the door, or better still, leave it at home.
If you’ve checked off one or more items, you’re definitely in the target audience for this new entry from composer Joe Iconis, currently represented (for a few more weeks, at least) on Broadway with Be More Chill. This off-Broadway musical, which premiered a couple of summers ago at Barrington Stage Company, is the sort of show for which fringe festivals were invented.
You have to be a serious theater geek even to appreciate the fact that the musical is a huge valentine to its star, who plays a washed-up version, career-wise, of herself. (Well, at least for most performances. Anne L. Nathan, who has appeared on Broadway in such shows as Once and Thoroughly Modern Millie, plays the title role at Saturday matinees, with the text apparently slightly altered to reflect her real-life credits.)
Golden’s long show-business career is illustrated on the walls of her character’s NYC apartment in the show. There are posters and Playbills for such things as Milos Forman’s 1979 film version of Hair, the Broadway musicals Assassins and The Full Monty, and even an album cover from her ’70s-era punk band The Shirts. As the show would have it, Annie, whose Broadway producer husband died 10 years earlier, has fallen on hard times. Her headshot is woefully out of date, and she keeps losing parts to younger actresses.
So she’s not entirely unreceptive when approached by Shiro Jin (Emily Borromeo), the mysterious leader of a group of bounty hunters whose headquarters is a dojo. Proudly announcing that she heads the “only female-run bounty hunter agency in the city,” Shiro Jin tells Annie that her “ferocious” singing voice, acting experience and, most importantly, her “commitment” make her a prime, if unconventional, candidate for recruitment. Annie is immediately partnered with the super-cool Lazarus (Alan H. Green, hilariously exuding over-the-top machismo), one of Shiro Jin’s top bounty hunters, who is less than enthusiastic about the pairing. “Everybody knows I hunt alone!” Lazarus seethes.
Thus begins Annie’s tremulous adventures as a bounty hunter, tasked with journeying to Ecuador and tracking down the “drug-pushing pimp daddy” Mac Roundtree (an exuberantly villainous Brad Oscar). If you recognize the surname as an homage to a certain blaxploitation star of the ’70s, you’re ahead of the game. Accompanying the duo are several of Shiro Jin’s ethnically and racially diverse minions, played with tremendous energy, if not always finesse, by Badia Farha, Jasmine Forsberg, Omar Garibay, Jared Joseph and Christina Sajous.
“I haven’t been on a road trip this long since the Xanadu tour,” complains Annie at one point, in an example of the show’s frequent meta-style humor.
Those moments, at least, are funnier than the tired movie-genre spoofery that dominates the proceedings. The book, written by Iconis and his frequent collaborators Lance Rubin and Jason Sweettooth Williams, features more broad slapstick than genuine wit. While the musical might have proved mildly amusing as a brisk one-act, it feels hopelessly thin and stretched out at two hours-plus.
Another problem is that Golden, although eliciting our empathy with her sad-sack expression and large, woeful eyes, never fully leans into the show’s outrageousness. Despite her still powerful pipes, we get little sense of her character’s transformation into a badass heroine, which might at least have resulted in some wacky fun. And such plot developments as Lazarus warming up to his unlikely partner or a shocking revelation about Roundtree’s identity feel more rote than inspired.
Iconis is certainly capable of writing enjoyably peppy, tuneful music, much of it here reflecting a classic soul and R&B influence familiar from vintage exploitation-movie soundtracks and featuring lyrics that are often funnier and more incisive than the cheesy dialogue. Golden and Oscar are each given opportunities to shine with the numbers “Woman of a Certain Age” and “The Return of Roundtree,” respectively, but few of the other songs are likely to stick in your mind.
Director-choreographer Jennifer Werner delivers a sprightly, energetic staging that makes effective use of Brad Peterson’s clever projections to compensate for the lack of high-class production values. Sarafina Bush’s deliberately tacky costumes are a hoot, and the frequent dance numbers, many of them incorporating martial arts moves (and nunchucks as well!), are a lot of fun.
Broadway Bounty Hunter is one of those “love it or hate it” kind of shows. The audience at a late preview performance seemed fairly evenly divided between those obviously finding it uproarious and others whose stone-faced demeanors indicated that they just weren’t on its kitschy wavelength. The musical is certainly more geared to adults than the teen-oriented Be More Chill, although not necessarily adults of the more mature variety.
Venue: Greenwich House Theater, New York
Cast: Annie Golden, Alan H. Green, Brad Oscar, Emily Borromeo, Badia Farha, Jasmine Forsberg, Omar Garibay, Jared Joseph, Christina Sajous
Music & lyrics: Joe Iconis
Book: Joe Iconis, Lance Rubin, Jason Sweettooth Williams
Director-choreographer: Jennifer Werner
Music supervisor & orchestrations: Charlie Rosen
Set designer: Michael Schweikardt
Costume designer: Sarafina Bush
Lighting designers: Jules Fisher, Peggy Eisenhauer
Sound designer: Cody Spencer
Projection and video designer: Brad Peterson
Presented by Jennifer Ashley Tepper, Allison Bressi, Marji & Kevin Finkel, Maxwell Haddad, Winston Hatta, Jiao/Laska/Nissen, The Nice Kids, Dara Paige, Bloomfield/Peri Ganbarg, Jo-Ann Dean/Cooper Lawrence, Grey Lady Entertainment/Marandi Entertainment, Cliff Hopkins, Phil Iconis, Megan Minutillo/Jen Sandler, Mia Moravis, Platypus Productions, Michelle Riley