REVIEW: “Broadway Bounty Hunter” is a bust
If there is a German word to describe the phenomenon of a show that isn’t good enough to be bad or bad enough to be good, the English-language translation might very well be: “Broadway Bounty Hunter”.
This original musical, which opened tonight at Off-Broadway’s Greenwich House Theater, bizarrely and astonishingly appropriates a 1970s blaxploitation framework—and its attendant use of funk and soul music—to tell the story of a white protagonist, a fading actress who is a “woman of a certain age”.
After leaving another failed audition and having her power cut off (symbolism alert!), our leading lady is recruited to join the only “female-owned bounty hunter agency in the city”—a dojo led by a sword-wielding martial arts master—and chase down a “drug pusher” and “pimp” who runs a brothel in the “jungles of South America” before disrupting the machinations of an evil Broadway producer who drugs the ensemble of “Young People: The Musical” with a serum called “fierce” so they can perform 15 shows a week.
Would it shock you to learn that the authors of this musical are three straight white dudes?
I don’t doubt their good intentions, question their motives, or seek to suggest they harbor any ill-intent, but I do wonder why no one along the way questioned whether it was a good idea for a group of white people in year 2019 to seemingly unironically write and produce a mashup blaxploitation-martial arts genre musical centered around the story of a white character.
The cumulative effect of their work is a simultaneously bloated and undercooked jumble of genres and tropes that is borderline (if not cross the line) offensive. Conflation of Kung Fu (Chinese) and Karate (Japanese) is just the tip of a very large iceberg.
It seems that nearly everyone involved in this production could use a lesson on camp. What it is; more importantly, what it is not; and, most importantly, who ought to wield it.
“Broadway Bounty Hunter” comes close to hitting the right spot on the camp spectrum a few times, but never gets there due to a failure of commitment to a single tonal reality and the lack of a proper framing device to communicate to the audience what, exactly, it is that they are seeing.
As a result, I found my hands autonomically covering my mouth or else my jaw dropping for a good portion of the performance I attended. I suspect it might be as close I’ll get to recreating what it must have been like to watch “Carrie” the musical unfold in 1988.
The piece has clearly been written as a vehicle for its star, Annie Golden, a beloved veteran of stage and screen who burst on to the scene with the 1978 film adaption of “Hair” and hasn’t left since, creating iconic roles in “Assassins”, “The Full Monty”, and “Orange is the New Black”, to name a few.
Ms. Golden, now 67, is in fact a “woman of a certain age”, and in “Broadway Bounty Hunter” she plays, well, herself—a character named “Annie Golden” who appeared in “Hair” and “Assassins”, etc.
Unlike in real life, though, this Annie was married to a Broadway producer named Charlie Silver who drowned during a regatta on the Long Island Sound ten years ago. [spoiler alert!] Or so we think. Upon ditching her fruitless audition routine to join a band of racially-caricatured bounty hunters, Annie’s absurd mission to South America reveals otherwise.
She is accompanied on this journey by a purple fedora and fur coat-clad fellow bounty hunter named Lazarus (Alan H. Green), who, as his name foreshadows, will rise from the dead before the show is over, and fall in love with Annie. Mac Roundtree, the “pimp” and “drug pusher” they discover in Ecuador, is played by two-time Tony Award nominee Brad Oscar—a top notch actor doing the best he can with the middling material he’s been handed.
I can only assume Ms. Golden is in on the joke, but her lethargic and spiritless performance demonstrate why she has rarely anchored a show throughout her long and celebrated career, instead shining in what are sometimes derisively called “character parts”. Unfortunately, as a lead character who almost never leaves the stage, Ms. Golden does not make the impression necessary to carry the show, lost amid a sea of, well, characters who are more eccentric and exaggerated by comparison.
The score by Joe Iconis (“Be More Chill”) grooves along with a funk and soul aesthetic that is enjoyable, but the choice of that musical idiom is itself confusing (setting aside the larger “exploitation” issue at hand) since Ms. Golden’s character is both chided for and laments having a musical taste that is old-fashioned, e.g. stuck in the 1970s. Suddenly, the whole world around her is a pastiche of the soundtrack to “Shaft”. The musical ostensibly takes place in the present, but the presence of pay-phones and reference to The Ritz Theatre (now the Walter Kerr) suggest otherwise.
Is all this a failed attempt at camp? Is it all meant to be tongue-in-cheek? I would like to hope so, but the lack of an overarching framing device and the inclusion of more earnest and sincere moments suggest, at best, a creative tug-of-war behind the scenes.
The book—co-written by Mr. Iconis, young adult fiction writer Lance Rubin, and actor Jason Sweettooth Williams—would benefit from pruning and a more specific attention to one consistent reality. As directed and choreographed by Jennifer Werner, no character on stage resembles a real person, and yet they remain somehow not larger-than-life enough for this to work as a comedic choice.
To repeat: “Broadway Bounty Hunter” is a show that isn’t good enough to be bad or bad enough to be good. Instead, it lives in a musical purgatory somewhere in between.
For the second time in a row, I have found the experience of seeing a Joe Iconis musical off-putting and self-congratulatory—its sensibility sophomoric, its story and characters existing better in the imagination of teenagers (or tweens) than the minds of adult-age theatregoers, and its politics cloying.
To riff on Regina George, stop trying to make “dropkick the patriarchy” (a catchphrase from the show) happen. The existence of a female protagonist and characters of color and varying sexual orientation, while laudable, amounts to not much more than totemic shorthand without deeper meaning or exploration beyond their presence on stage.
With no disrespect meant to the genre, like “Be More Chill”, “Broadway Bounty Hunter” is the musical equivalent of a young adult novel. Its adult characters live in a coming-of-age framework bearing a teenage point of view. Crude language and scenarios are interpolated for laughs best harvested from middle-schoolers, and all throughout, there is an unmistakable patina of nostalgia for the media ecosystem of childhoods lived in the early 1980s.
I don’t doubt there is an audience for this kind of entertainment; I suppose I am just not it. But even I, a child of the 1980s, know that there is something quite icky about the way “Broadway Bounty Hunter” uses the imagery, language, and music of exploitation films in an inchoate attempt at camp based around the story of a white woman who is surrounded by an ensemble of racial stereotypes.
To wit: when a white character calls something “jive”, it’s not funny and it’s not clever. It’s concerning. “Broadway Bounty Hunter” is an exercise in cultural exploitation; just not the one its authors likely intended.
Bottom Line: “Broadway Bounty Hunter”—an original new musical about an aging actress who becomes a bounty hunter—uses the imagery, language, and music of exploitation films in an inchoate attempt at camp based around the story of a white woman who is surrounded by an ensemble of racial stereotypes. It’s a show that isn’t good enough to be bad or bad enough to be good, instead living in a musical purgatory somewhere in between. Skip it.
“Broadway Bounty Hunter”
Greenwich House Theater
27 Barrow Street
New York, NY 10014
Running Time: two hours, ten minutes (one intermission)
Opening Night: July 23, 2019
Final Performance: September 15, 2019