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NEW YORK — There’s a ton of talent onstage in Bullets Over Broadway, evident in the leggy chorines who ignite into explosive dance routines, the gifted cast, the sparkling design elements and the wraparound razzle-dazzle of director-choreographer Susan Stroman‘s lavish production. So why does this musical, adapted by Woody Allen from his irresistible 1994 screen comedy about the tortured path of the artist, wind up shooting blanks? Flat where it should be frothy, the show is a watered-down champagne cocktail that too seldom gets beyond its recycled jokes and second-hand characterizations to assert an exciting new identity.
One handicap — though not necessarily the fatal flaw — is the absence of an original score. Marvin Hamlisch and lyricist Craig Carnelia more than a decade ago began composing songs for a Bullets musical until that project was abandoned. Instead, Allen has gone with existing period music, collecting both standards and obscure ditties from the 1920s to flesh out his screwball backstage comedy about a struggling playwright whose big break gets him entangled with gangsters in Prohibition-era New York.
Allen has taken a variation on this route before, in his 1996 screen dud Everyone Says I Love You, a lifeless romantic confection that had non-singing actors (pre-Auto-Tune) murdering popular songs from the 1930s and ’40s. Given that the film’s screenplay was presumably written with those tunes in mind, they more or less fit that story. That’s often not the case here, where musical numbers have been dropped in according to “close enough” criteria, with help from additional new lyrics by Glen Kelly.
The problem is that most of the songs are inorganic to the plot and characters. They seem dictated by the energy requirements of only moderately funny material — not by anything in the moment that suggests it’s time to sing and dance. The show never makes a compelling case for why this story is being retold as a musical, but nor does it work as blithely silly 1920s-style fluff.
It might be amusing to see “Big Pussy” from The Sopranos break, apropos of nothing, into “Yes! We Have No Bananas,” providing an illogically effervescent concluding note that would have been right at home on a Ziegfeld revue. But that song’s inclusion is symptomatic of the fragile conception here. It’s not just that it makes no narrative or tonal sense for ruthless mobster-turned-Broadway investor Nick Valenti (Vincent Pastore) suddenly to reveal his whimsical side. It’s that the song is employed strictly out of the mechanical necessity for a big closing number.
That appears to be Stroman’s strategy throughout. Nobody does fluid 360-degree musical extravaganza like the technician who turned The Producers into a Broadway blockbuster. But there’s something almost manic about the way she trots out the tireless Rockettes-style hoofers in busy scene transitions, in an attempt to distract from the laziness of Allen’s writing. Aside from the addition of some puerile sex jokes, very little reinvention has gone on at script level. Certainly nothing that improves on Allen and Douglas McGrath‘s Oscar-nominated original screenplay.
The story is unchanged. Numbed by years of rejection, playwright David Shayne (Zach Braff) allows his producer (Lenny Wolpe) to persuade him that getting his latest work bankrolled is worth the tradeoff of being forced to hire the moneyman’s girlfriend in a small part. That would be Olive Neal (Helene Yorke), the brainless floozy pressuring her underworld sugar daddy Nick to get her name in lights. David, meanwhile, is torn between devotion to his Pittsburgh girlfriend Ellen (Betsy Wolfe) and the seductive allure of his leading lady Helen Sinclair (Marin Mazzie), the dipsomaniac who will do anything to have her role expanded and defrumped.
The playwright’s more pressing battle, however, is one of creative integrity. Suspicious of Olive straying with some handsome actor, Nick sends one of his thugs, Cheech (Nick Cordero), to babysit during rehearsals. When Cheech offers a quick fix for a problem scene, David begrudgingly concedes that it works. Pretty soon, he has to acknowledge that the gruff gangster’s ideas are an improvement, and Cheech ends up doing secret rewrites. But while still wrestling with that dilemma, David has to face more momentous moral qualms when Cheech decides that Olive’s squawking non-performance is ruining “his” play, and she has to go.
The nominal lead, Braff has an amiably neurotic, low-key charm in his Broadway debut, acquitting himself well enough with his vocals and minimal dance requirements. But whereas the more intimate access of a movie screen gave vitality to John Cusack‘s take on the same role, here David kind of disappears. His relationship with Ellen is so thinly drawn that we have no reason to care whether or not they stay together. He’s a reactive character who doesn’t actually do a lot, and a musical requires someone to root for at its center, especially when surrounded by stock figures.
As the film’s two most memorable characters — the vain, self-proclaimed Broadway legend and the crude, talentless wannabe — Mazzie and Yorke (Showtime’s Masters of Sex) work hard. Too hard. Helen’s big number, “They Go Wild, Simply Wild, Over Me,” should be an uproarious bite of delusional fading divadom. But Mazzie’s performance, while vocally impressive, lacks the sheer grande-dame insanity that earned Dianne Wiest an Oscar in the role — though “Don’t speak!” gets a huge laugh every time. Yorke sticks close to the Jennifer Tilly mold, and brings undeniable comic verve. But she’s stuck with a bawdy, double entendre-laden burlesque number, “The Hot Dog Song,” which feels out of place. It’s also wildly overblown, coming off as the poor person’s version of Stroman’s bad-taste classic, “Springtime for Hitler,” from The Producers.
It’s distressing to watch a musical-theater talent like Karen Ziemba trying to gnaw some flavor out of the thankless role of a bubbly second-tier player (Tracey Ullman in the movie), only to be upstaged by her Pomeranian, Mr. Woofles. Others like Wolpe, Pastore and Wolfe mostly fade into the scenery.
The two exceptions are Cordero and Brooks Ashmanskas. A comic genius who goes for broke and triumphs, Ashmanskas is a scene-stealer as the play’s pompous leading man, his compulsive overeating steadily expanding his girth as opening night approaches. Cordero is long, lean and younger than his screen counterpart, Chazz Palminteri. He has an easygoing confidence in the Bobby Cannavale vein that’s refreshing amid so much strenuous mugging, and he leads his gangster cronies in a fun tap number to “Tain’t Nobody’s Biz-Ness If I Do.” It also helps that Cheech is the most distinctive character — an unrepentant assassin who turns out to be the most natural artist of them all.
There’s little here that we haven’t seen before, but the relentless exuberance of Stroman’s staging provides entertainment value, notably in ensemble numbers like the sassy opener, “Tiger Rag,” in which the dancers get mischievous with their kitty-cat tails. Doug Besterman‘s orchestrations of the period tunes are also peppy and full-bodied. But watching this effortful show provides constant reminders that a lot of money has been thrown at mediocre material.
From the gangsters’ pinstripes, hats and spats to the showgirls’ playful stage outfits to Helen’s shimmering gowns, William Ivey Long‘s costumes are sumptuous. The same love of vintage show-biz runs through Santo Loquasto‘s set designs, the most brilliant of which is a briefly seen proscenium stage-within-the-stage on which David’s play is being performed. (A frequent Allen collaborator, Loquasto also did the movie’s production design.)
As they board the train at Grand Central for the play’s Boston tryout, with the chorus girls as tap-happy porters, the company sings “Runnin’ Wild.” But incorporating a song indelibly associated with an ageless screwball classic, Some Like It Hot, only emphasizes the disappointing staleness here. An out-of-town tryout is precisely what this musical could have used to find the nuance and fresh humor that are lacking.
Venue: St. James Theatre, New York (runs indefinitely)
Cast: Zach Braff, Marin Mazzie, Brooks Ashmanskas, Nick Cordero, Vincent Pastore, Betsy Wolfe, Lenny Wolpe, Helene Yorke, Karen Ziemba, Jim Borstelmann, Janet Dickinson, Kim Faure, Paige Faure, Casey Garvin, Kelcy Griffin, Sarah Lin Johnson, Andy Jones, Amanda Kloots-Larsen, Kevin Ligon, Brittany Marcin, Paul McGill, James Moye, Beth Johnson Nicely, Eric Santagata, Kevin Worley
Director-choreographer: Susan Stroman
Book: Woody Allen, based on the screenplay by Allen and Douglas McGrath
Set designer: Santo Loquasto
Lighting designer: Donald Holder
Costume designer: William Ivey Long
Sound designer: Peter Hylenski
Orchestrations: Doug Besterman
Musical director and vocal arrangements: Andy Einhorn
Music adaptation and additional lyrics: Glen Kelly
Presented by Letty Aronson, Julian Schlossberg, Edward Walson, Leroy Schecter, Roy Furman, Broadway Across America, Just For Laughs Theatricals/Jacki Barlia Florin, Harold Newman, Jujamcyn Theaters
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