For those of you who have been living under a rock, Bullets Over Broadway is based on the movie of the same name, both written by Woody Allen and Douglas McGrath. Somewhere along the line, there sprang an idea to not only bring it to Broadway, which might have been a good idea, but to add music to it in the form of songs from the 1920’s and 30’s to which new lyrics would be added. In addition, the characters would be blown up into very loud, very one note figures. Between the music and the volume, the heart of this story has been surgically removed.
The time is 1929 and a young playwright (why are they ALWAYS young?), David Shayne (Zach Braff) is living in sin with his gal Ellen (Betsy Wolfe) Nothing he has written has been successfully produced, and if his current story doesn’t get a nod, the two of them may be headed back home to Pittsburg. Fortunately David’s’s manager Julian Marx (Lenny Wolpe) finds the money when an “acquaintance” – as in a gangster named Nick Valenti (Vincent Pastore) needs a vehicle for his doll Olive, (Heléne Yorke) who wants to be a star. Hands shake. Deal is made. Off we go.
In addition to Olive, the manager is able to recruit Helen Sinclair (Marin Maisey) – think Norma Desmond – who is a performer “past her prime” but hungry for another shot at fame. In addition they pull in Waarner Purcell (Brooks Ashmanskas) who is a catch, but who may eat himself out of his own costume and Eden Brant (Karen Ziemba) who is one of those amiable and spunky sidekicks with a dog, Mr. Wooffles (Trixie), the size of a large purse (who is not very happy up there and totally steals any scene s/he is in).
The rehearsals begin, and it is obvious to everyone that Olive is not up to the task of creating a character, never mind actually reading and comprehending the script. Because her man has the m-o-n-e-y, however, Olive remains. As a precaution, Nick has sent his own personal body guard, Cheech (Nick Cordero) along to chaperone Olive, who needs no protection. As the rehearsals drag on, and Cheech is left to do nothing but listen, he begins to have some ideas about the play. As in: the structure, the plot and pretty much everything else. His offhand remark after a rehearsal captures the attention of the cast, and this prompts David to seek Cheech out for counsel. In short order it is Cheech who is writing the play (that we never see) and David hurtles between elation that all is going well and guilt the size of the Titanic because he is masquerading as the author.
Love relationships blossom and fizzle and bloom again. Murder hangs in the air. And the show must, as it always does, go on. That is pretty much it. Well, there is the Stroman’s choreography which is beyond delicious when it appears. The opening number with the women performing Tiger Rag is dazzling, but the rest of the women’s numbers are tame even though these gals are fit and disciplined. The men, on the other hand, are given many a chance to leap and twirl, often doing both at once. The Ain’t Nobody’s Business number is a standout. Men in suits and fedoras tap dancing – what can I say… Sigh.
Other than the dancing and vocal work there was not a lot to cheer about in this production. Mr. Allen’s book locks the characters into their own small spheres. Mr. The additional lyrics by Gene Kelly are not on par with the original. As to the performances, Braff paces the stage like a dramatic high school thespian and spends the entire show in a concave position – in order to prove that he is anxious I suppose. He lacks the spark that this character needs to have in order to pull this story along. Marin Mazzie’s pipes are sublime. Her voice is positively liquid gold, so it is too bad she has so little time or opportunity to let loose. As to Helen Sinclair, all we get is the scaffold of this woman, and the references to her drinking lighter fluid etc. are just not funny. Heléne Yorke may be doing some serious damage to her vocal chords with her chosen grating voice that never, not for one nanno-second, varies. Ditto Cordero when he sings. Ashmanskas and Ziemba are solid, dependable, light and charming as they can be, but they too have little to work with in this script.
There’s not a lot of “there” there.
Everyone is doing their darndest, and there is some terrific talent on that stage. But the whole ends up being less than the sum of its parts, in spite of the splendid set (Santo Loquasto) and costumes (William Ivey Long). Watching this production was like biting into a chocolate bunny and discovering that it is hollow and tastes like wax. For all the energy that was expended in creating and performing this show, there should be a lot more to say than, “Is that all there is?” But there you are. Incidentally, I am pretty certain that those were the exact words going thru Mr. Bubbles mind as s/he was poked, prodded and whisked about. Good thing dogs can’t talk.
Bullets Over Broadway
By Woody Allen, based on the screenplay by Mr. Allen and Douglas McGrath; directed and choreographed by Susan Stroman
WITH: Brooks Ashmanskas (Warner Purcell), Zach Braff (David Shayne), Nick Cordero (Cheech), Marin Mazzie (Helen Sinclair), Vincent Pastore (Nick Valenti), Betsy Wolfe (Ellen), Heléne Yorke (Olive Neal), Karen Ziemba (Eden Brent) and Jim Borstelmann (Vendor, Victim, Ensemble).
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; associate director, Jeff Whiting; associate choreographer, James Gray; animal trainer, William Berloni; music supervision by Mr. Kelly; orchestrations by Doug Besterman; music director/conductor and vocal arrangements by Andy Einhorn; music coordinator, Howard Joines; production stage manager, Rolt Smith; production manager, Aurora Productions; associate producer, Don’t Speak, LLC; company manager, Bruce Klinger; general manager, Richards/Climan, Inc. Presented by Letty Aronson, Julian Schlossberg, Edward Walson, Leroy Schecter, Roy Furman, Broadway Across America, Just for Laughs Theatricals/Jacki Barlia Florin, Harold Newman and Jujamcyn Theaters. At the St. James Theater, 246 West 44th Street, Manhattan; 212-239-6200, telecharge.com. Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes.