Bullets Over Broadway continues at the St James Theatre, New York, in an open-ended run.
Bullets Over Broadway, based on Woody Allen’s 1994 gem of a movie about the perils of putting on a play with gangster financing, is almost the kind of musical that set a certain Broadway standard back, say, some 60 years ago or so. That’s not a putdown. There were swell shows back then. Playful, tuneful and a bit smart. Most notably, think of Guys and Dolls, which opened back in 1950.
Bullets isn’t exactly Guys and Dolls, but sometimes it looks a lot like it with its dancing tough guys and pert chorines. At one point, those chorines are even swathed in something that looks very much like mink.
Of course, this new show doesn’t have a Frank Loesser score, but it does have a sprightly jukebox assortment of circa Jazz Age tunes (the musical like the movie is set in the 1920s) refashioned so that they can serve cleverly as plot songs as well as production numbers. They range from Cole Porter’s playful ‘Let’s Misbehave’ to ragtime screamers like ‘Runnin’ Wild’ and unapologetically smutty blues like ‘I Want a Hot Dog For My Roll’. Glen Kelly deserves huzzahs for his musical adaptations and additional lyrics.
What Bullets Over Broadway also doesn’t have, though, is the coherence of story and character that helped lift Guys and Dolls above the crowd. Bullets, the musical, sometimes seems to be a free-for-all of plot points and cartoon people. The realistic mise-en-scene of the movie that somewhat grounded the mayhem of the mobsters and the peccadilloes of the theatre people and made it all the more funnier seems diluted in transforming it into a frenetic Broadway musical. The jokes and goofy stuff in Allen’s script – based on the screenplay he co-wrote with Douglas McGrath – land but they rarely knock you out. That also goes for the philosophical nub of the story – the question of what’s more valuable: art or life?
That same nagging feeling that things aren’t quite living up to potential pervades other aspects of the show, under the helm of the laurel-bedecked director-choreographer Susan Stroman. The dances are watchable, but they don’t soar. Even the sets by Allen’s long time set designer Santo Loquasto are eye-filling but not breathtaking.
As one big number follows another, Stroman infuses the show with a party-like feel. It‘s a fun party. But it’s not, as Noel Coward would say, “a marvellous party”, as we watch the tribulations of playwright David Shayne, reaching for success and artistic validation with his first Broadway production. First of all, he has to cast in a key role the desperately untalented girlfriend of the underworld boss who’s backing the production. Then, he has to deal with the boss’ right-hand thug who’s watching over her throughout rehearsals, a thug who turns out be a better playwright than Shayne. And finally, he has to deal with his expanding libido as he falls under the spell of his show’s star, the slipping but still legendary Helen Sinclair, threatening his relationship with his sweet long-time sweetheart, Ellen.
A luminous cast has been assembled for the proceedings, and several of the performers get an opportunity to stop the show. As Shayne, Zach Braff, known widely for his lead role in the long-running TV sitcom Scrubs, personifies the trademark Allen frenetic intellectual, and he carries off his song-and-dance tasks with aplomb. Marin Mazzie glitters like her costumes (designed by William Ivey Long) and threatens to devour every flat of that Santo Loquasto scenery as the imperious Helen Sinclair. She also lends great vocal authority to songs as varied as ‘There’s a Broken Heart For Every Light On Broadway’ and ‘I Ain’t Gonna Play No Second Fiddle’. As the moll’s bodyguard, who emerges as a great dramatist, Nick Cordero is a threatening presence who gains our sympathy when he murders to protect his art, and he brings terrific bravura to his songs.
Helene Yorke has undoubtedly the most difficult role, playing the gangster’s moll, an untalented performer of limitless stupidity and temperament, who nevertheless still has to win over the real audience out there in the St James Theatre with her songs and dances. Well, she does it, managing to envelop the lady with a veneer of vivacity. As David’s girlfriend Ellen, Betsy Wolfe sings fetchingly and mixes in pluckiness with the character’s sweetness. There are welcome contributions by Vincent Pastore as the mob boss, Brooks Ashmanskas as a leading man who can’t stop feeding his face, and Lenny Wolpe as a supportive producer. Only the wonderfully talented Karen Ziemba seems wasted as an aging ingénue who’s also cast in Shayne’s play. Ziemba leads the Act II opener, but it’s a fairly ordinary number.
Bullets Over Broadway may not shoot bull’s eyes, but it definitely knows how to give you a good time. It may not be the greatest time of your life or even your year, but when a show uses as its finale a rousing rendition of that immortal hit from 1922 ‘Yes! We Have No Bananas’, how can you resist it?
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