Broadway Review: ‘Bullets Over Broadway’

Bullets Over Broadway reviews Woody Allen

Susan Stroman's energetic direction almost compensates for a weak book and a few key miscastings in Woody Allen's showbiz tuner.

Everyone hoped “Bullets Over Broadway” would be the show to get those flickering Broadway lights blazing again. In certain wonderful ways — Susan Stroman’s happy-tappy dance rhythms, the dazzling design work on everything from proscenium curtain to wigs, and a fabulous chorus line of dancing dolls, molls and gangsters — Woody Allen’s showbiz musical is the answer to a Broadway tinhorn’s prayer. Surprisingly, though, the book (from Allen’s own screenplay for his 1994 film) is feeble on laughs, and certain key performers don’t seem comfortable navigating the earthy comic idiom of burlesque. So, let’s call it close — but no cigar.

“Bullets” is that rarity, a musical without an original score. But the two dozen vintage songs culled from the Tin Pan Alley archives to fit the 1920s timeframe have been chosen with as much intelligence as affection.

That old Dixieland floor-stomper, “Tiger Rag,” opens the show with a joyful blast, as the Atta-Girls, a line of chorines in barely there tiger costumes (by the inimitable William Ivey Long), strut their stuff at Nick’s Club. (Santo Loquasto’s colorful scene settings are the soul of wit.) And how sweet it is to hear Nick Valenti, the boss gangster played by boss gangster-player Vincent Pastore (Big Pussy of “The Sopranos” fame) croaking Andy Razaf’s sexy lyrics to “Gee Baby, Ain’t I Good to You” to Olive (Helene Yorke), the chippy gold-digger nagging him to make her a Broadway star.

But, oh, man, we’re already running into trouble with Yorke (“Masters of Sex”), who looks like a Kewpie doll (did we mention that William Ivey Long did the costumes?), but whose ear-splitting shrieks and squeals are a dead giveaway that she hasn’t a clue about the inherently selfish infantilism that makes girls like Olive so devastatingly sexy to powerful old guys with pots of money. Another casting miscall surfaces when Nick, looking for a play (like “Macbeth”) to buy for Olive, latches onto David Shayne (Zach Braff), a boho playwright who thinks he’s written a masterpiece and won’t have it ruined by philistines like directors and actors. Braff (a pinup cutie in “Scrubs”) gets the narcissism, but his boyish appeal doesn’t translate into charm.

But the face and the voice that should be driving “Bullets” belong to Marin Mazzie as Helen Sinclair, the dramatic actress with the big name (and complementary ego) who stars in David’s show and cunningly tries to seduce him into expanding her role. Surprising for this bona fide stage star, Mazzie indicates a high degree of discomfort in this diva role, which she pushes beyond satire and into caricature.

Having both leads off their game doesn’t bode well for “Bullets.” Luckily, a major rescue operation is launched when Nick Cordero (the original “Toxic Avenger”) strides into the narrative as Cheech, the gangster Nick assigns to nanny duty as Olive’s bodyguard. Tall, lean and impeccably turned out in fedora, pinstripe suit and Tommy gun (did we mention that William … forget it), Cordero plays it cool. But Cheech is soon bitten by the showbiz bug, and before you know it, he’s rewriting David’s pretentious script into something fine and good.

Whenever he’s knocking off gangsters from a rival mob and dumping them into the Gowanus Canal, Cordero croons a very pretty rendition of Hoagy Carmichael’s immortal “Up a Lazy River.” (Nice song placement, that.) But Cheech and his fellow goons literally stop the show with a simply sensational tap-dance number by Stroman, to “Tain’t Nobody’s Biz-ness If I Do,” which shows off the director-choreographer’s vivacious technical wit at its inventive best.

Although he’s no scene stealer, Brooks Ashmanskas is another irresistible laugh-getter as Warner Purcell, the gluttonous leading man whose spreading stomach keeps popping out of his costumes. Betsy Wolfe, whose operatic voice makes lovely work of the little-known “Blues My Naughty Sweetie Gives to Me,” also brings a lot to a secondary role.

This is a dancing show, so it’s no surprise that the book scenes take a backseat to the dance numbers. But even a few of the big production numbers fall flat — and none flatter than “The Hot Dog Song,” a naughty novelty number in which Olive shows off her burlesque skills. But those dancing gangsters can do no wrong. And those terrific hoofers who play the flappers and the hoochie-coochie girls and the nightclub chorines always manage to land on their feet. In another showstopper, the Atta-Girls play uniformed railroad redcaps who dance on the train (literally on top of the train) taking David’s (Cheech’s, really) show to Boston for its out of town tryout.  Now, that’s what we’re talking about.

Broadway Review: 'Bullets Over Broadway'

St. James Theater; 1,629 sets; $147 top. Opened April 10, 2014. Reviewed April 8. Running time: 2 HOURS, 30 MIN.

Production

A presentation 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 of a musical in two acts by Woody Allen, based on the screenplay by Allen and Douglas McGrath.

Creative

Directed and choreographed by Susan Stroman. Sets, Santo Loquasto; costumes, William Ivey Long; lighting, Donald Holder; sound, Peter Hylenski; hair and wigs, Paul Huntley; makeup, Angelina Avallone; music supervision, adaptation, and additional lyrics, Glen Kelly; orchestrations, Doug Besterman; music director, conductor, and vocal arrangements, Andy Einhorn; music coordinator, Howard Joines; production stage manager, Rolt Smith.

Cast

Brooks Ashmanskas, Zach Braff, Nick Cordero, Marin Mazzie, Vincent Pastore, Betsy Wolfe, Lenny Wolpe, Helene Yorke, Karen Ziemba.

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  1. Rodger Lodger says:

    Yes, the Bananas nonsense song had nothing to do with the show. It was just pure pleasure. Who cares it didn’t meet formal criteria? I like to enjoy shows, and I enjoyed Bullets in preview immensely, as did the audience. It’s looking out there that people would rather see something officially certified as “good”, than just something enjoyable. I had the misfortune of seeing two plays by the highly lauded Eno, and they were painful experiences, with every character talking wise like on The Simpsons. That the official academics of theater think Eno is the cat’s pajamas is as relevant as the brevity of the playwright’s name.

  2. ThomT says:

    I didn’t hate it but I didn’t love it either. For me it is a show filled with missed opportunities. Although the show was derived from the movie the tone feels off. I felt the inclusion of old songs, rather than a new score, made the show feel stale. “Crazy For You” and “Nice Work If You Can Get It” were both shows built around old songs much more successfully. “Bullets” at times feels as if someone just stuck in a song because it was old and fit the time line rather than the storyline. The decision to close the show with “Yes, We Have No Bananas”, a song that had absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with the preceding 2 hours and 20 minutes, was such a terrible choice as to be laughable. The tacked on final song (“Bananas”) seemed to have been placed there for no other reason than to provide a big flashy closing production number – a better choice would have been a reprieve of one of the earlier uptempo songs. The cast was strong throughout and the production I saw had the excellent understudy filling in for Mazzie. However, at times it seemed like the characters in “Bullets” were, much like those in the play within the play, unsure of exactly where the show was headed. Stroman’s earlier season failure “Big Fish” was a better show and it only lasted 4 months. If intermission exits are any example I would say that “Bullets” won’t be matching any of the records set by “The Producers” which also played the St. James Theater.

    And why would Variety consider “Bullets” unusual because it is a musical without a new score? With “Motown: The Musical”, “Mama Mia”, “Jersey Boys”, “Beautiful: The Carole King Story” as well as the three current Disney transfers “Newsies”, “The Lion King” & “Aladdin” (each with songs from their movie included) it seems that “Bullets” is simply continuing a trend that has been ongoing for several years.

  3. cadavra says:

    GENTLEMAN’S GUIDE TO LOVE AND MURDER is still my pick for the Tonys, but BULLETS sounds like it’ll give it some competition. (Except in the score category, of course.)

  4. David Fuchs says:

    I wish the public could judge the show on its merits, w/o thinking that the author is a criminal. But I realize the reality:

    The public doesn’t know that Vanity Fair made up the most absurd lies about Woody. They “proved” that he’s a molester bc “he was in therapy for that.”

    Who said that he wasn’t? The THERAPIST!! She’s the one who said that it was “not sexual.”

    Woody & Robert Weide never answered VF, “10 Undeniable Facts.” This musical will suffer the consequences of VF, “10 Undeniable Lies.”

    • Rodger Lodger says:

      I know of no evidence that attendance will be affected by the scandal.

      • David Fuchs says:

        I just hope you’re right.
        And I hope that, this summer, Emma Stone can continue saying what she said bf, “Woody changed my life!”
        And Blanchett will stop walking on eggshells & say what she said bf, “Woody Allen are the only 2 words I need to hear, the only 2 words any girl needs to hear.”

        Keep on dreaming.

  5. Rodger Lodger says:

    I saw the show in preview and had a wonderful time, especially because I love the 20s/30s songs. I didn’t laugh a lot but there was much eye candy from the dancing. Professional critics have a job to do, but their reviews often have little to do with how much the average theater goer will enjoy a show. Reviewers critique shows from an almost academic, formalistic, set of criteris. But you enjoy reading novels that book reviewers wouldn’t even bother with, correct? I recommend this show for a good time. And the audience I was with loved the hot dog number, as did I.

  6. Eric Best says:

    I thought Bullets Over Broadway perfected mediocrity, with no standout voice or performance, many songs standard or below par, and a main character whose story has negative appeal. Not worth an expensive ticket.

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