BWW Reviews: Stroman Knocks 'Em Dead with BULLETS OVER BROADWAY
Ladies and gentleman, Susan Stroman is back.
It's been thirteen years since the director/choreographer helped cause otherwise reasonable adults to consider selling their infants or offering sexual favors to box office personnel to acquire a pair for The Producers. Since then her Broadway efforts, always polished and professional and occasionally reaching brilliance, have been devoted to challenging, unconventional pieces (Thou Shalt Not, The Scottsboro Boys, Big Fish), an intimate revival (The Frogs) and a film genre spoof (Young Frankenstein).
But with a new musical adapted from Woody Allen and Douglas McGrath's screenplay for 1994's Bullets Over Broadway, Stroman heads back into full tilt musical comedy mode and lights up the St. James with a stylish, witty evening full of exuberant Broadway panache. It's a great big sophisticated musical comedy for adults filled with big laughs and imaginative visuals.
Woody Allen's clever book stays faithful to the source; a subtle comedy, set in the 1920s, about a young playwright of the left-wing intellectual variety who is convinced that inept directors who try and dilute his powerful dramas to suit the public taste are the reasons his plays have always failed. David's goal in life is to someday be as great an artist as his unproduced playwright friend, Flender. ("You are a genius. The proof is that both common people and intellectuals find your work conflicting and incoherent.")
The fish-out-of-water complications that strike when David's newest piece is picked up by a Broadway producer because a gangster investor is backing the play to help his questionably talented chorine girlfriend ("The first time we made love... I fell for you 'cause you gave me a big discount.") become a legit actress is well heightened by the glitz and kinetic dazzle of Stroman's energized production.
Santo Loquasto's Jazz Age scenic designs smoothly blend from elegant art deco to musty boho to shady gangland locales. William Ivey Long dresses the flirtatious ladies of the dancing ensemble and the natty tap dancing thugs in snazzy and comical period threads.
Though the score is made up of songs from the period, Glen Kelly's occasional tinkering with the lyrics helps them fit more firmly into the characters and situations. While a new score would likely give the musical more depth, Bullets Over Broadway was written closer to the way musical comedies were written in the 1920s, with producers hiring bookwriters to work around potential hit songs.
And since many of the numbers have lapsed into relative obscurity ("Tiger Rag" "Gee Baby, Ain't I Good to You?" "Blues My Naughty Sweetie Gives To Me" "I Ain't Gonna Play No Second Fiddle") the show never feels driven by an effort to spark nostalgia with a hit parade.
Musical theatre newcomer Zach Braff makes a loveable mensch out of the neurotically frustrated playwright getting his first taste of the champagne lifestyle, but this is very much an ensemble piece and the rest of the company is primarily made up of musical vets who take their share of spotlight-worthy turns.
As the actors cast in his probing drama, Marin Mazzie is divinely self-centered as the binge-drinking stage diva Helen Sinclair ("I made it myself. If it tastes from lighter fluid, it's because it's lighter fluid."), Brooks Ashmanskas is a riot as the erudite and gluttonous leading man who steadily gains weight from first rehearsal to opening night, Karen Ziemba sings with trooper moxie as the eccentric actress who doesn't go anywhere without her tiny pooch. Mr. Woofles, and Heléne Yorke screeches hilariously as the untalented showgirl.
The always charming Lenny Wolpe makes for a genial producer and Vincent Pastore is a natural choice for his familiar role as a tough-guy mobster. Betsy Wolfe's role as the playwright's girlfriend is a bit peripheral, but she scores thrillingly in each act, socking out her two numbers to the back of the house.
Anchoring the evening with terrific low-key realism is Nick Cordero as Cheech, the hit man who casually sings "Up A Lazy River" while driving his victims to their final resting place, the bottom of the Gowanus Canal, and leads a chorus of pin-striped mugs in a show-stopping tap routine. At first Cheech hates having been assigned by the big guy to attend every rehearsal and keep an eye on his dame, but when he starts offering his opinions on what's wrong with the play and how it can be fixed, the cast is enthused by his ideas and David is torn between sticking to his artistic vision and secretly getting more advice from Cheech to make the play a crowd-pleasing hit that is also artistically satisfying.
While I can't speak for the crowd, this reviewer certainly regards Bullets Over Broadway as an artistically satisfying, critic-pleasing hit.