What would Woody Allen have thought of “Bullets Over Broadway” if he hadn’t written it? Would he have enjoyed this overbearing Broadway musical full of recycled, flat and vulgar jokes; dazzling design; knock-em-over-the-head choreography set to mostly 90-year-old novelty tunes; and a cast of proven talent forced to mug their way to a paycheck? My guess is: Allen would never have been caught dead inside the St. James Theater.
Allen seems to have little affection for the stage. This is evident in the mean-spirited portraits of the Broadway characters in his new musical, based on his 1994 film.
In Prohibition-era New York, a novice, pretentious and hopeless playwright David Shayne (Zach Braff) gets backing for his Broadway debut from a vicious mobster Nick Valenti (Vincent Pastore) in exchange for casting Nick’s talentless girlfriend Olive (Helene Yorke.)
An example of Allen’s wit: Olive whines to her boyfriend that she wants to be the lead.
Nick: You want the lead — go to acting school.
Olive: Why? You never went to extortion school.
David cheats on his long-time girlfriend with the drunken self-dramatizing diva Helen Sinclair (Marin Mazzie) who is cast as the lead of his play. The rest of the cast of the play-within-the-musical are one-note jokes, far more so than they were on screen: Leading man Brooks Ashmanskas is a compulsive eater whose girth expands before our eyes; supporting player Karen Ziemba is obsessed with her dog.
About the only figures on stage who come out sympathetically – both the performer and the character – are the dog Mr Woofles, played by a Pomeranian named Trixie, and Olive’s bodyguard, the one-named Cheech, portrayed to perfection by Nick Cordero (who is best-known up to now as the original star of Off-Broadway’s Toxic Avenger.) In the one clever twist in the musical, the unschooled hitman Cheech turns out to have a natural talent for playwriting, and, fed up with watching rehearsals for this awful show day after day, he takes matters into his own hands, and rewrites it, turning it into a hit. Whether or not “Bullets Over Broadway” itself winds up a commercial hit, Cordero – who has already been nominated for both Outer Critics and Drama Desk awards for his performance – is the only person sure to benefit from his association with the show….and deserve it.
To gauge Allen’s contempt for Broadway, one can look not just at this musical but at a track record that stands in startling contrast to his work as a filmmaker. Now, Allen is himself no theatrical novice: “Bullets Over Broadway” is his sixth show on Broadway; the first was way back in 1960. But while he’s produced at least one movie every year since 1977, in that same period he’s only been involved in two Broadway shows before “Bullets.” The last one, in 2011, was “Honeymoon Motel,” Allen’s contribution to the triptypch of ghastly, unfunny plays that made up “Relatively Speaking.” It was nothing more than an old burlesque routine. The constantly evolving and experimenting film director and screenwriter seems to see the theater as old-fashioned and ridiculous – and has helped make it so.
“Bullets Over Broadway” is not without some splendid moments of entertainment, but they can be clearly traced back to director and choreographer Susan Stroman, helped by William Ivey Long’s extravagant, playful sexy costumes, and Santo Loquasto’s ambitious scenic design, which includes a real car and a moving train.
Most of the dance numbers are over the top, but in a good way – the best of what I’ve called The Broadway Effect. If “The Hot Dog Song” has an excess of adolescent phallic humor, it’s offset by the splendid show-stopping tap she gives Cordero and his fellow goons to the tune of “Tain’t Nobody’s Biz-ness If I Do.”
Stroman and her design team deserve the credit for what’s right about “Bullets Over Broadway – or at least what keeps our eyes dancing happily while our ears and minds shut down. I am convinced Stroman could create a razzle-dazzle stage adaptation of “The Curse of the Jade Scorpion.”
Bullets Over Broadway
At the St. James Theater
By Woody Allen, based on the screenplay by Mr. Allen and Douglas McGrath; directed and choreographed by Susan Stroman; music adaptation and additional lyrics by Glen Kelly; sets by Santo Loquasto; costumes by William Ivey Long; lighting by Donald Holder; sound by Peter Hylenski; hair and wig design by Paul Huntley; makeup design by Angelina Avallone
Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes, including one intermission.
Cast: Brooks Ashmanskas (Warner Purcell), Zach Braff (David Shayne), Nick Cordero (Cheech), Marin Mazzie (Helen Sinclair), Vincent Pastore (Nick Valenti), Betsy Wolfe (Ellen), Lenny Wolpe (Julian Marx), Heléne Yorke (Olive Neal), Karen Ziemba (Eden Brent) and Jim Borstelmann (Vendor, Victim, Ensemble).