By: David Sheward
It seemed like such a terrific idea: a musical version of Woody Allen’s hilarious 1994 Jazz Age film comedy Bullets Over Broadway, directed and choreographed by the ever-imaginative Susan Stroman, with flavorful songs from the period for the score. But there have been a couple of slips between conception and execution.
Rather than an enjoyably zany cartoon along the lines of the original movie or Stroman’s delightfully goofy theatricalization of Mel Brooks’s The Producers-another cinematic gem with a showbiz story-the stage. Bullets is closer to Allen’s disappointing 1996 patchwork musical movie Everyone Says I Love You. In both Woody misfires, individual pieces succeed in tickling the funny bone but fail to fit together into an integrated whole.
The basic plot, derived from the screenplay by Allen and Douglas McGrath, is still ingenious: the only way struggling dramatist David Shayne can get his play on Broadway is to cast Olive Neal, the talent-free moll of Nick Valenti, the show’s mobster backer, as a brainy psychiatrist. During rehearsals, David discovers Olive’s brutish bodyguard Cheech is a masterful instinctive playwright and allows him to surreptitiously improve the script.
The big problem with this musical is that score of standards from the 1920s. Rather than commission original songs that would have flowed into Allen’s libretto, melodies such as "I’m Sitting on Top of the World" and "A New Day Dawning" are shoehorned in, stopping the action cold and offering generic expressions of character such as "I’m happy now" or "Things seem to be improving." There are a few additional new, situation-specific lyrics by music supervisor Glen Kelly, but they go don’t far enough to redress this near-fatal flaw.
To compound the musical oddness, the song choices don’t always fit the characters. It just sounds weird rather than funny to have the upper-crust leading lady Helen Sinclair break into a Bessie Smith number, "I Ain’t Gonna Play No Second Fiddle," or Nick the gangster-moneyman wrap up the whole crazy proceedings with the novelty number "Yes We Have No Bananas." (Strangely, even Allen’s way with a one-liner fails him, and half the spoken gags fall flat.) One of the few numbers that works is Cole Porter’s deliciously risqué "Let’s Misbehave," delivered by the screechy-voiced Olive and the play’s overweight leading man Warner Purcell, thanks to Stroman’s clever choreography and performer Brooks Ashmanskas who manages to make a three-dimensional person out of a walking sight joke with his droll performance.
Another spot-on sequence is a dynamite tap number danced by a blistering Nick Cordero as Cheech and a chorus of pinstriped thugs. Like Ashmanskas, Cordero is solid in his characterization, as is Zach Braff as the put-upon playwright, exhibiting an attractive singing voice (which he sometimes demonstrated on his TV series Scrubs) and a light comic touch. He wisely avoids imitating Allen in this obvious Woody-surrogate role.
The rest of the ensemble is wildly uneven. Marin Mazzie’s Helen is over-the-top even for this outrageous alcoholic and sex addict. Helene York’s Olive is one-note. As David’s fiancée Ellen, Betsy Wolfe puts over her two big numbers with punch, but the character is lifeless when she isn’t singing. Likewise, the sparkling Karen Ziemba is wasted in the throwaway role of the dog-loving ingénue. Vincent Pastore is asked only to repeat Sopranos shtick as Nick, and Lenny Wolpe does what he can with the stereotypic producer.
At least we have William Ivey Long’s dazzling costumes and Santo Loquasto’s intricate sets to distract us from the jumbled script, which even the inventive Stroman can’t salvage.
Opened April 10 for an open run. St. James Theatre, 246 W. 44th St., NYC. Tue 7pm, Wed 2pm & 8pm, Thu 7pm, Fri 8pm, Sat 2pm & 8pm, Sun 3pm. Running time 2 hours and 35 minutes, including intermission. $52-147. (212) 239-6200.
Photo: Paul Kolnik