“Bullets Over Broadway” was a constantly delightful movie by Woody Allen at his comic best, back in the day. Now it’s back as a full-blown, or more aptly OVERblown Broadway musical, where the chorus comes off best.Director Susan Stroman’s epic hoofers are tapping up a storm in the Best Choreographed numbers I’ve seen in years.
You never want them to stop dancing, but unfortunately, they do.
And it comes as a shock that Allen’s delightful piece of 1920s whimsy is so paper-thin when magnified to Broadway blockbuster size. “Guys and Dolls” it’s not, though it’s mixture of thugs and chorines is oddly similar. Close but no cigar.
And it begs comparison to Stroman’s other great hit at the very same St. James Theater “The Producers.” What’s the diff? Well, it just isn’t funny.
From the minute “The Producers” curtain went up, I just couldn’t stop laughing. In “Bullets OVer Broadway” I couldn’t START laughing.
What’s wrong? Well, the characters seem paper-thin and bloodless, rather than original. And it’s not really the casts’ fault. It’s rookie Broadway book-writer Allen’s, making newbie mistakes all over the place.
First, there are no original songs, although the show cries out for them. I mean, “Yes, We Have No Bananas” as the climatic curtain finale? I mean, seriously?
Zach Braff, sings and dances surprisingly well, as the leading character, the inevitable Woody stand-in as David Shayne, a struggling schlub of a playwright who just can’t catch a break. His best number(and he has a lot of them, too much almost) is the classic “I’m Sitting On Top of the World” and it’s stirring. I thought that would be the end of the first act, but no, it’s not. Not by a long show. Er, shot.
And the tap-dancing gangters, hoofin’ their heavy hearts out to “Tain’t Nobody’s Business If I Do,” is really the high-point of the show, which comes waaay to early in the middle of a VERY long first act. Brevity is the soul of wit, Woody. But we thought you already knew that.
As you can see, the numbers seem oddly placed. ANOTHER newbie mistake.
There are some quirkily amusing burlesque-ish turns like the Atta-Girls chorus as pussy-cats shaking their blues away in “Tiger Rag,” which opens the show. And again, the hard-working male chorus disguised as hot dogs, yes, hot dogs, doing the “Hot Dog Song” to Olive Neal, here played by Helene Yorke. Yorke essays the EXTREMELY untalented, but nevertheless pushy actress wannabe/gun moll with the uber-irritating voice. Olive was one of Allen’s most endearing creations, but here she just aggravating.
In the movie, Jennifer Tilly’s rat-a-tat delivery of Olive’s sappily stupid one-liners was again delightfully brief. You couldn’t wait for her ditzy character to come brassily back on.
In the musical, you can’t wait for her to leave. I’ll never forget the jolt I felt when Olive’s fate overtakes her in the movie. In the musical, it doesn’t come quickly enough.
The same sense of too-much-of-muchness is displayed by Marin Mazzie’s waaaay over-the-top Helen Sinclair, a soused diva well-past her sell-by date. In the movie, this again smartly brief role was played with deliciously over-seasoned relish by Diane Wiest, who won a Supporting Actress Oscar, as Woody’s actresses often do. It was a peach of a part. Here she’s a over-ripe orchard.
Marin Mazzie is mugging to beat the band, and yes, she does beat them.
Sadly, in “Bullets Over Broadway” Helen Sinclair has been exploded and expanded to Best(bad) Actress in a Musical status. I like Marin Mazzie,but I always felt there was something missing. I think the word is star quality. Ethel Merman, she ain’t. She’s not even Beth Leaval in “Drowsy Chaperone,” though it’s the same part in a different show.
The word “cliche” springs to mind as we have instead the over-acting Ms. Mazzie, who belts well in “They Go Wild, Simply Wild Over Me” and then really has nowhere else to go but down. Her classic line to playwright Braff “Don’t Speak!” was a witty character trope, defining Diva Sinclair, but here is used over five or six or seven or eight times. Too much! TOO MUCH! ENOUGH ALREADY! Overkill becomes road kill very quickly on Broadway.
The criminally underused Karen Ziemba has fallen on times so hard, she, a real-life former Broadway headliner, is playing third fiddle to Olive and Helen Sinclair, and fourth fiddle to her to her dog Mr. Woofles, who yes, also does his own little doggie dance.
When she sings “It’s a New Day Coming” to open the second act, you sincerely open she’s right. But the number again disappoints, as it goes on and on and on. As Ziemba goes to the dogs, literally.
The real emerging star of the show, for me, was the singing gangster,Cheech, Nick Cordero, who has the deliciously silly “Up a Lazy River” played every time he goes to the Gowanus Canal to, er, work. And he of course, is UNDERused. As opposed to everybody else who is criminally OVERused, like Olive and Helen Sinclair and Mr. Woofles. The other OK actor who escapes unscathed here is Brooks Ashmanskas, whose overweight character grows into ponderous girth, as the show’s leading man, Warner Purcell. Ashmanskas doesn’t miss a beat, or a danish. And he and Olive are fun in “Let’s Misbehave,” as he keeps eating as she keeps seducing him.
But this is Allen’s first Broadway musical outing as a librettist, and it’s good that he’s trying to expand his horizons as a writer by doing so. The next one should be better, whatever it is. Maybe you can teach an old dog new tricks.