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If you happen to be a fan of Woody Allen’s 1994 film Bullets Over Broadway, you might agree with critics who panned the musical adaptation that arrived with great anticipation at New York’s St. James Theatre in 2014. With a book by Allen, based on his Oscar-nominated script co-written with Douglas McGrath, and directed and choreographed by multi-Tony winner Susan Stroman (The Producers), it seemed like a show that couldn’t miss. But many felt the wit and charm of the film was swapped for course gags and overbearing musical numbers. They’re not wrong. But if you haven’t seen the movie then you might enjoy this twenties-era theater tale, set amid tap-dancing gangsters and chorines cooing to period tunes.
Pretentious downtown playwright David Shayne (Michael Williams) keeps a firm grip on his artistic integrity until he falls prey to a gangster with a fat wallet and a starry-eyed moll, Olive Neal (Jemma Jane). Nick Valenti (Michael Corvino) offers to finance Shayne’s play, but only if there’s a plum part for his sweetheart. The former showgirl demonstrates her talent with “The Hot Dog Song,” a bawdy burlesque number that Jane attacks with vigor, bringing energy and passion to a one-dimensional role the audience loves to hate.
Over Shayne’s objections, Olive gets the part, despite a nasal drone that makes him wish for a chalkboard to scratch. Rehearsals begin at the Belasco Theatre, where we meet Olive’s co-star, Warner Purcell (Bradley Allan Zarr), a fine actor who has trimmed down to his fighting weight but cannot resist another Danish — nor a piece on the side, namely Olive. Zarr delivers a performance as broad as his ever-expanding belly, proving himself an adept comedian and a graceful hoofer, even in a fat suit.
Another ensemble member, Eden (Rachel Bahler), arrives with her puppy in tow (in this case a stuffed animal), but quickly fades into the background in a role that’s been pared down from the movie and could easily have been cut. And that gloomy guy in the corner is Cheech (Jeff Brooks). “Not Mr. Cheech,” he corrects producer Julius Marx (Rick Grossman), “just Cheech.” He’s there at the kind request of Mr. Valenti to keep an eye on Olive.
The sequence is framed by Shayne singing “I’m Sitting on Top of the World,” a title that reflects his mood but little else. It seems as if the dialogue-heavy scene may have felt static so the creative team folded in a tune to loosen things up. It’s emblematic of a larger problem, which is the seemingly arbitrary placement of musical numbers. Lyrics sometimes literally reflect the content of a scene, as in “Let’s Misbehave,” a duet between Purcell and Olive, or not, as when Valenti breaks into “Yes! We Have No Bananas” to end the show.
When the numbers work, they’re outstanding, as in “Tain’t Nobody’s Bizness If I Do,” a tap-dancing tour de force by Cheech and his fellow gangsters. (Nick Cordero scored the original Broadway cast’s sole acting nomination at the Tonys for the show’s plum role.) Decked out in legendary costumer William Ivey Long’s pinstripes, the guys seamlessly mix classic hoofing with some modern moves that bring down the house.
When the team heads off to Boston for tryouts, the distaff half of a dazzling ensemble, the Atta-Girl chorines, take over the stage. Only this time they don’t dance on the roof of the train as they did at the St. James, another of the minor changes in direction and to Santo Loquasto’s vibrant production design, which was adapted from his work on the original film.
The most significant alterations are with the cast. Where Zach Braff was singing and dancing for the first time in his Broadway debut, Williams has even less experience, having only recently graduated Webster Conservatory. But the neophyte demonstrates a sure hand portraying a decidedly unsure character in Shayne, an unsympathetic protagonist who fails to drive the story forward. That would fall to Cheech.
He may be a cold-blooded killer, but yeah, he finished school … right before he burned it down. Sitting in the wings throughout rehearsals, he diagnoses the play’s dramaturgical shortcomings and fixes them with a rewrite. The author’s relationship with his work becomes the show’s central question — when is it appropriate to value a work of art over a human life?
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For Cheech, the answer is now. Brooks brings a burly physicality that belies his graceful dance moves. His performance is rife with menacing undercurrents; his stillness makes him stand out in a show that’s always moving, almost desperate to keep the audience engaged.
Cheech might be the perfect man for Helen Sinclair (Emma Stratton), a washed-up diva given to histrionic gesticulation and exotic potables, mainly lighter fluid and paint thinner. The star of the show, Sinclair is Cheech’s equal when it comes to getting what she wants.
Stratton, who won raves in the 2012 touring company of Anything Goes, tirelessly pursues Shayne, whom she takes for a genius based on Cheech’s rewrites. But all she really wants is a role to launch her comeback. Though a little young for the role, Stratton is a scene-stealer with a long elegant frame, which she sensuously transforms from slender and statuesque to mosquito-like in her seduction of the hapless playwright. Her voice quivers and trills as she assumes a wistful nostalgia, but her true nature shows in “I Ain’t Gonna Play No Second Fiddle,” an ultimatum to Shayne about leaving his girlfriend, Ellen (Hannah Rose DeFlumeri).
Bullets Over Broadway is scored primarily with retooled standards, and while the tunes are relentlessly bouncy, there are too many of them. But this frothy show does provide dazzling art direction and performances, as well as effervescent ensemble numbers.
Late in the second act, when the most annoying main character is murdered, the person behind me muttered, “Finally!” And while you may enjoy this winning but often frustrating show, you might nonetheless find yourself muttering the same when the curtain comes down.
Venue: Pantages Theatre, Hollywood
Cast: Michael Williams, Emma Stratton, Jeff Brooks, Bradley Allan Zarr, Michael Corvino, Hannah Rose DeFlumeri, Rick Grossman, Jemma Jane, Rachel Bahler, Blaire Baker, Mary Callahan, Jake Corcoran, Elizabeth Dugas, Carissa Fiorillo, Patrick Graver, Andrew Hendrick, Lainee Hunter, Justin Jutras, Brian Martin, Conor McGiffin, Andrew Metzgar, Corinne Munsch, Kaylee Olson, Joey Ortolani, Kelly Peterson, Lexie Plath, Ian Saunders
Director-choreographer: Jeff Whiting and Claire Cook, after Susan Stroman
Book: Woody Allen, based on the screenplay by Allen and Douglas McGrath
Set designer: Jason Ardizzone-West, after Santo Loquasto
Costume designer: William Ivey Long
Lighting designer: Donald Holder
Sound designer: Shannon Slaton
Orchestrations: Doug Besterman
Music director, vocal arrangements: Andy Einhorn
Music adaptation, 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 Theatres
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