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Big Bravos to Bubbly, Brassy Bullets Over Broadway


Masterworks Broadway

Context, they say, is everything. But they also say that ignorance is bliss. And I say that sometimes pretending to forget the context can be bliss. (Or is that "denial"?) Cast albums are typically most fully appreciated when we know the context of how the numbers fit in and have gotten to know the characters and situations leading up each bursting-into-song. I had issues and frustrations with those contexts and the recycling of old pop ditties when I went to see Bullets Over Broadway in previews. To my happy surprise, I have been having a terrific time listening to the uber-splashy cast album. On its own, it works as hyperactive hijinks and winks. Judiciously selected snippets of dialogue give just enough flavor and, oh boy, the Doug Besterman orchestrations in all their balanced glory and detail are invigoratingly zingy. (Besterman is also co-producer of the album.) This CD pops. Pulling out all the stops, with pumped-up pep in percussion and blaring horns, the orchestra—conducted by Andy Einhorn—is as spiffy and tightly triumphant as can be imagined. What felt sometimes like lame, shameless shoehorning of creaky musical relics is now great goofy fun. Without worrying about fitness and function (songs supposedly serving to illuminate characters or further plot), the wham-o performances are entertaining in their zany excesses.

If one isn't up for an onslaught of up-tempo, I can see how the proceedings might feel exhausting. The rhythmic raucousness, with the intentionally hit-'em-over-the-head approach and broad, brash humor, is no quiet stroll in the park. It's about as subtle and gentle as going through Mardi Gras on a pogo stick. The first clue is when two songs have the word "Wild" in the title. For the desired loopy effect, singing voices can be can be loud and screechy, especially the especially hilarious Heléne York (as the dumb blonde awful actress) and a gaggle of gals as a nightclub chorus. Then there's the grand grandstanding for the egotistical and boozy diva (Marin Mazzie, diving in deliciously) and Brooks Ashmanskas as the hammy and flamboyant actor. Zach Braff has a field day with the franticness of the frazzled playwright, David ("The Panic Is On" is a panic in the slangy sense of the word) for whom nothing is going right. While there's a dearth of daintiness and pretty-voiced singing or balladry, there is some respite from the rowdiness: the richer, rounder singing of David's girlfriend left behind, via the competent work of Betsy Wolfe. A cucumber-cool, gun-toting thug is played with élan by Tony-nominated Nick Cordero. He casually disposes of a fresh corpse, crooning "Up a Lazy River" without missing a beat. All in a day's work.

Music supervisor/arranger/adaptor Glen Kelly wrote additional lyrics for several of the numbers. It's all in good fun as most of this material isn't in the "sacred cow" category of the Great American Songbook. I'm talking novelty nuttiness like "Yes, We Have No Bananas," which adds lines tailored to various characters' desires and plans:

"Tomorrow I diet
To Pittsburgh we'll go
I'm longing for quiet
I'm rolling in dough
I'll find a new lover
I'll finally recover
From backing a Broadway show."

A couple of other examples of Kelly's craft: In "There'll Be Some Changes Made," gangsters are threatening to beat someone up and "Nobody loves you when you're old and gray" becomes the bouncy warning "Nobody loves you you're your legs are broke." In "They Go Wild, Simply Wild, Over Me," he has Mazzie's Helen get theatre-specific with the snazzy lines "I do plays produced by Harris and Belasco/ Not Julian Marx's latest fiasco" and "Who has style, who has flair? Paging Helen Sinclair!" The track includes some of the terse darts of dialogue. When she sings "I haven't had a drink since New Year's," Lenny Wolpe as the aforementioned Julian quips "You mean Chinese New Year's," and her spoken, non-offended reply is, "Naturally." Naturally, it works. I'll drink to that. Such things help to lend some needed integration in the otherwise borrowed and general lyrics about optimism, devil-may-carelessness, and romance. As for those left unchanged except for an infusion of caffeine, a few spoken lines substitute for lyric-tailoring. A couple of quick malapropisms for Miss York are mini-treats ("Now," she explains about the climax of a stage showstopper, "we build to a charisma!").

As for quibbles, the reliable pro Karen Ziemba is under-used, her major singing turn coming with the generic spirit-raiser "There's a New Day Comin'!" performed sparklingly but without the spice of her character's eccentricities. (There might have been a more specialized piece as a pay-off to her fussing over her doggie.) The over-selling of Cole Porter's "Let's Misbehave" loses its sophistication and feels rushed-through and even more like an over-exposed ringer as it's one that's been used (and re-used) in mountings of shows with Porter's material. The warm but sentimental "She's Funny That Way" for reunited lovers feels out of place with the sudden genuine sensitivity. With the 18-member orchestra and orchestrations being so essential to the dazzle, I wish the overture hadn't been over so quickly and that there were more purely instrumental interludes. A case could be made that (too) many of the numbers on this 22-track crackerjack escapade paid off less than they might have due to similarly styled "pow" endings. Applause-cuing "buttons" become predictable, though they are predictably effective. Sure-fire is OK, but surprise twists toppers are even better.

For broad Broadway panache, and sublime silliness, it's tough to top the well-aimed Bullets cast recording.

- Rob Lester

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