Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - April 10, 2014
Bullets Over Broadway by Woody Allen. Based on the Screenplay of the Film Bullets Over Broadway by Woody Allen and Douglas McGrath. Direction and choreography by Susan Stroman. Music adaptation and additional lyrics by Glen Kelly. Scenic design by Santo Loquasto. Costume design by William Ivey Long. Lighting design by Donald Holder. Sound design by Peter Hylenski. Hair & wig design by Paul Huntley. Make-up design by Angelina Avallone. Orchestrations by Doug Besterman. Cast: Brooks Ashmanskas, Zach Braff, Nick Cordero, Marin Mazzie, Vincent Pastore, Betsy Wolfe, Lenny Wolpe, Heléne Yorke, Karen Ziemba, with Clyde Alves, Jim Borstelmann, Preston Truman Boyd, Janet Dickinson, Bryn Dowling, Kim Fauré, Paige Faure, Casey Garvin, Kelcy Griffin, Dan Horn, Sarah Lin Johnson, Andy Jones, Amanda Kloots-Larsen, Kevin Ligon, Synthia Link, Brittany Marcin, James Moye, Beth Johnson Nicely, Eric Santagata, Kevin Worley.
The first is, of course, the Woody Allen comedy. The stage show is based on the 1994 film that Allen wrote (with Douglas McGrath) and directed, about a struggling 1920s playwright whose big Broadway break doesn't go quite as he planned. The nightclub-mobster angel strong-arms his talent-free girlfriend Olive into the cast, and sends along a bodyguard to ensure she gets the "respect" she deserves. And the playwright, David Shayne, is less than happy to discover that bodyguard Cheech isn't just free with his ideas, but a better writer than David himself is, and more than willing to "fix" David's troubled play.
With an array of colorful characters, most notably Helen Sinclairthe conceited star who is hired to headline and begins romancing the already-attached Davidand plenty of dopily juicy backstage drama, the movie doesn't want for laughs or spirit. Strong attention to period detail and a pitch-perfect cast (including Dianne Wiest, who won an Oscar for playing Helen) make it Allen's highest-flying 1990s project, and, one might think, ripe for translation to the stage.
The second show at work here would be the Susan Stroman musical. The director-choreographer who went mega-hot helming Mel Brooks's The Producers 13 years ago, would seem to bring the right general kind of splashy show-biz savvy to this tale. And, odds would reason, she'd be able to temper it with just enough dark bite to mimic Allen's wackily gritty mood from the film and keep everything from falling apart at the seams.
Third but not least is the revue. Allen has forgone an original score in favor of a collection of year-appropriate standards and forgotten gems that unerringly invoke the Prohibition-soaked pre-Depression era, with all its skyrocketing optimism and jazzy unpredictability well poised to provide sparkling entertainment. The best-known selection is Cole Porter's "Let's Misbehave," but there are no natural duds to be found amid the song stack.
But if considerable care has been given to crafting each of these outings individually, with Santo Loquasto's sets, William Ivey Long's costumes, and Donald Holder's lights all making the proper contributions to the effort, one firm force hasn't bothered to ensure that they all work well together. Whatever else it may be, Bullets Over Broadway certainly isn't cohesive.
Stroman's sensibility proved to be well in keeping with Brooks's as far as The Producers (if not the follow-up retread, Young Frankenstein), their joint one-dimensional outlooks on the art somehow acquiring three-dimensionality when fused together. Allen's underhanded, neurotic style, however, fits uneasily with Stroman's blazing glitz. The book tries to make things more real and Stroman's staging and dances tries to make them less real, so the final product is never able to establish a recognizable reality of its own.
This problem is only amplified by the musical numbers, which can do nothing to bridge the gaps. A score written in tandem with a book can support it, elevate it, fill in holes. But songs taken from other sources, even when they occasionally have rewritten lyrics, as here (Glen Kelly is billed with "music adaptation" and "additional lyrics"), are not equipped to carry dramatic weight. The script screeches to a halt when the orchestra kicks up, interrupting the intricate pacing and the encroaching demented dread Allen is trying to conjure.
That last number, by the way, is the closest Stroman gets to the scintillating showmanship of which she's capable, but unlike with her best dances (foremost among them, "I Got Rhythm" from Crazy for You), she's too hampered by unnecessary artificiality for it to have the visceral impact it attends. Otherwise, she's just holding down the fort, trying to find ways to keep David appear upbeat across an overextended montage of "I'm Sitting on Top of the World" at the first day of rehearsal, the first-act train-station finale "Runnin' Wild" play with identifiable locomotion, and the confusing opening-night climax deliver sweeping giggles rather than violent intensity.
Similarly, nuance is not encouraged among the cast members. Braff has energy to spare and a decent singing voice, but offers only one-note mania to propel David from bottom to top and back again. Yorke obviously has natural comic timing she puts to solid use, but her mush-mouthed line readings don't let much humanity shine through. Mazzie is good at playing Helen's glittering "type," but pushes the diva shtick well beyond believability; likewise, Betsy Wolfe is all sunshine and no heat as David's girlfriend Ellen. On the other hand, Cordero deploys just enough playful menace as Cheech, Wolpe does well as the warmly bemused Julian, Vincent Pastore injects some angry zing into his mobster, Karen Ziemba is fine if underused as Helen's folksy co-star, and Brooks Ashmanskas impressively almost restrains himself as David's stress-eating leading man.
Those performances and the other things that work (including Doug Besterman's sinewy, brassy orchestrations) are enough to stop this from being a bad triptych of an evening, or for that matter even a bland one. But the best Woody Allen comedies, Susan Stroman musicals, and revues are characterized by excitement, innovation, and integration. And these are just what Bullets Over Broadway, however strongly it evokes its individual components, lacks most.