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.