A CurtainUp Review
Bullets Over Broadway
By Elyse Sommer
And boy oh boy, it delivers plenty of both. The songs are melodic as all get out and the lyrics are often smart and peppy. As for the dances and the dancers — Wow! Choreographer Susan Stroman who also directs this screwball musical comedy is in top form.
This is a big, glitzy old-fashioned Broadway entertainment with nothing on its mind except fun. It's got eye-popping, full of wit scenery and costumes by the ever resourceful Santo Loquasto and William Ivey Long), a buoyant cast that includes a high voltage ensemble.
Yes, it's another movie based musical— but so what when the movie is Woody Allen's Oscar winning satiric fusion of gangster and backstage story Bullets Over Broadway. The adaptation sticks pretty close to the movie plot. Allen, who did the adaptation, has managed to give it lots of show biz fluff but also retain plenty of his best lines.
If the songs you hear sound familiar it's because they're all vintage 1920's and 1930s tunes. And while you may hear complaints that a big budget show like this warrants an original score, these bouncy pre-depression era tunes suit the material better than anything likely to be created by a contemporary songsmith. They're all smartly adapted by Glen Kelly (a seasoned music supervisor and arranger) even though the effect is never quite that of a single musical voice. Kelly has also freshened and enhanced some of the songs with additional lyrics.
The plot in a tweet: Idealistic playwright finds the road to Broadway paved with compromise and complications. In the end, he must choose between life and art.
That plot in a bit more detail: David Shayne (Zach Braff), an unproduced playwright, gets a chance at the gold ring when producer Julian Marx (Lenny Wolpe) enlists gangster Nick Valenti (Vincent Pastore) to back the show. Marx downplays the source of Valenti's money to David with "he's got his finger in a number of pies" which leads to a classic Allen comeback from David — "He's a baker?" The gangster connection forces David to give a part to Valenti's untalented bimbo moll Olive Neal (Helene York). He must also put up with her bodyguard Cheech's (Nick Cordero) script improvement advice (yes, it turns out to be excellent!) and his relationship with Ellen (Betsy Wolfe)falls victim to his seduction by the show's has-been diva Helen Sinclair (Marin Mazzie). The curtain does rise eventually, even as the vorcacious leading man Warner Purcell (Brooks Ashmanskas) gets fatter and fatter and actress Eden Rock (Karen Ziemba) tends to be distracted by her maternal concerns for her pet Mr. Woofles (Trixie). Murder and mayhem notwithstanding, all predictably ends well with a lot of shtick to enliven the silliness.
While David is the pivotal character and Zach Braff plays him charmingly, this is a tightly knit ensemble. Marin Mazzie is glamorous and in fine voice in the diva role that won Diane Wiest an Oscar. That said she puts her own stamp on the role rather than channel Wiest. We first meet Mazzie in Helen Sinclair's penthouse as producer Julian Marx (the excellent Lenny Wolpe) tries to make her realize that she can't be choosy given her career shattering drinking and sexual misbehavior. Her "They Go Wild, Simply Wild, Over Me" illustrates Glen Kelly at his most skillful in integrating favorite interchanges from the movie into the libretto and lyrics. The lyrics about Helen's wild years and proclaimed sobriety since New Year's segue into this Marx/Helen dialogue: To his sarcastic "You're talking about Chinese New Year's" Helen comes back with "Naturally. . .. still it's been two days. You know how long that is for me?"
Brooks Ashmanskas is obviously having a great time camping it up as the voracious leading man Warner Purcell. And he knows how to deliver a song and despite that ever expanding belly is limber on his feet. It's always nice to see Karen Ziemba, who starred in Stroman's hit dance play Contact , though she's way too under used here. Trooper that she is she makes the most of what she gets. Betsy Wolfe also has little to do as David's girlfriend Ellen but, like Ziemba, when she does get to sing it's lovely. Helene Yorke is awfully screechy as the sexy dumbbell Olive. Though the audience at the performance I attended ate up her "Hot Dog" number. this is a case of a stumble in the effort to create a single musical voice with many different songs. That not so hot burlesque song is hardly on a par with output from the likes of Ray Henderson, Hoagy Carmichael and Cole Porter. (Porter's, "Let's Misbehave" which Olive sings with Warner is a more deserved showstopper).
In the gangster department, Vincent Pastore's stint on The Sopranos serves him well in the role of Nick Valenti. But it's his aide-de-camp, Nick Cordero's Cheech, who's the show's big scene stealer, as Chazz Palminteri was in the movie. Cheech's morphing into David's ghost writer (with dire results for Olive) is hilarious. Cordero's no slouch as a singer, as evident from his two show stopping numbers: "Up a Lazy River" (the Sidney Arodin-Hoagy Carmichael song that was also part of the movie sound track) and "Tain't Nobody's Biz-ness If I Do."
Ultimately, what really makes this popular movie work as a crowd pleasing old-time show are the ensemble players who take on the show stopping production numbers as The Atta-Girls, Cotton Club Dancers,Flappers, Gangster and Red Caps. Set designer Santo Loquasto has certainly created a varied and colorful environment for them and William Ivy Long has applied his usual wit to their costumes.
From a viewpoint of originality and artistry, A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder, with its excellent original score and artistic staging would probably be my #1 choice as this season's best movie based musical comedy. Still, the brassier, jazzier Bullets over Broadway, the Musical has a lot going for it. Unlike Woody Allen's movies which have always appealed mostly to a somewhat elite metropolitan audience, this adaptation is likely to be a winner with those who like their entertainment light, frisky, and with lots of elaborate theatrical bells and whistles.