Twenty-first Century Broadway has been dominated by musicals adapted from hit film titles. The reason for this is perfectly valid: a well known movie title will offer instant recognition for the audience wondering what to see and it is a proven fact that audiences gravitate towards what they know. With few exceptions, an unknown quantity requires a star to sell the tickets and there are only so many stars of that caliber available—even to Broadway. Short of having a Broadway star, a hit movie title will suffice. If the show can be populated with well known performers as well, then that can only help. One of the best ideas of this kind is Woody Allen’s Bullets Over Broadway.
Susan Stroman, who already has the experience of helping to adapt a filmmaker’s work for the musical theatre with the actual filmmaker taking part in the process, is on hand to direct and choreograph and she has done so in top form. The endeavor is helped greatly by Glen Kelly, adapting the period songs curated by Woody Allen, to support Mr. Allen’s book and Ms. Stroman’s staging. Add to the mix the always delightful costume designs of William Ivy Long and a most brilliant set design by Santo Loquasto—a star of this particular production if ever there was one. The combination is a bubbly Roaring ‘20s musical comedy as purely entertaining and exhilarating as anything that has been done so far this century.
For those who don’t know the movie (and if you don’t you should make it a priority), this is a tale of old Broadway where an emerging playwright, David (played sweetly by Zach Braff), finally gets his new drama produced by his one supporter, producer Jullian Marx (the ideal Lenny Wolpe) and some gangster money supplied by Nick Valenti (the perfect Vincent Pastore). The compromise is that David must cast Valenti’s Dumb Dora girlfriend, Olive (Helén Yorke, in a very original performance).
Marin Mazzie takes on the role of Broadway legend Helen Sinclair, the role that won Dianne Wiest an Oscar. Ms. Mazzie can’t get past imitating the famous “Don’t Speak” lines from the film, but otherwise she is wholly original in a role that is basically a Norma Desmond send-up. If anyone can replace the great contemporary film gangster, Chazz Palmintari as Cheech, it is Nick Cordero who looks every bit the intimidating gangster and has the best singing voice in the show. Brooks Ashmanskas elevates the hilarity as Warner Purcell, Betsy Wolf is lovely as David’s girlfriend and the friendly appearance of Karen Ziemba as Eden Brant completes the stalwart leading cast.
The orchestra is hiding under the stage so the pit can be covered to add more stage space. This is imperative, for a surprising amount of three dimensional scenery is magically maneuvered on and off stage. Each individual setting is a kind of an impression of what it is supposed to be, but within that impression the details are rich. After a car drives across the stage, two versions of a train come and go, a night club, a rooftop apartment (inside and out), an Art Deco abode, a bare stage, a few back alley and street locations, the play within the play arrives in the form of a stage-wide setting that rotates to show on and off stage shenanigans continuously. For all that, the show seems sleek and un-encumbered. The set change transitions are miraculous and the entire enterprise tap dances along with a brisk rhythm.
As for the dancing, there is plenty: a wonderful Roaring ‘20s romp of a ballet depicting numerous gangster shootings and terrorized flappers, a tap dancing crew of mobsters and a chorus line of long legged girls dancing on top of a train that would make Ziegfeld proud. None of it is beyond what history has given us before, but this old fashioned type of staging is simply, expertly done.
However, the show is not flawless. Most of the men of the company do not sing well. If the show runs long enough for Mr. Braff to be replaced, many others will be able to sing and move in the role better. Not all of the songs are magically wedded to the script, with the finale being particularly obtuse. 1920s pop songs are ditties and cannot really serve a modern musical. Ultimately, an original score would have really marked this show as its own animal apart from the film.
There will be comparisons to The Producers and perhaps The Drowsy Chaperone, but this is nothing like those shows in tone and purpose. Bullets Over Broadway is not a send-up and it is not self-referential, nor is it even a Valentine to the musicals of the 1920s, for it works in contemporary terms—even with songs culled from the period and costumes that pull all of the glamour and drama out of that crazy era. This show is not a throw back or a copy of anything that has come before, except for where the film is concerned. And even so, this stage adaptation of the film contains enough joys of its own, while retaining all that is favored from the original Woody Allan concoction.
For a quick glance at the opening night reviews from other periodicals take a look at www.broadwayworld.com.