Murder. Mayhem. Showgirls and tap dancing gangsters. What more could you ask for?
Bullets Over Broadway, currently playing at the St. James Theatre, is a fast-paced musical theater gem that has eluded some critics, but here at the Broadway Blog, we think its wit and charm fire off like a Thompson submachine gun. Directed and choreographed by Susan Stroman with a script by Woody Allen (based on his 1994 film co-written with Douglas McGrath), Bullets packs in a stacked deck of character-driven performances set against the backdrop of 1920s New York.
Young playwright David (Zach Braff) has the opportunity to have his play produced on Broadway, but only if he succumbs to mobster investor Nick Valenti (Vincent Pastore), his shrill girlfriend, Olive (Heléne Yorke), who aspires to become a star, and her bodyguard, Cheech (Nick Cordero). Along for the ride are diva Helen Sinclair (Marin Mazzie), compulsive eater Warner Purcell (Brooks Ashmanskas) and ditsy dog lover Eden Brent (Karen Ziemba). As the play within the musical progresses, it’s clear that David’s script needs more than a bit of tinkering, and before we know it, thug Cheech reveals himself as a more astute wordsmith than the playwright.
Stroman is back in her element after a clunky attempt at another movie-to-musical adaptation (Big Fish) earlier this season. Here Stroman nails the style and humor of 1920s New York City with some flashy help from costume designer William Ivey Long and set designer Santo Loquasto, who collectively deliver some of the most lush and period-perfect designs of the season. Deservedly, both are nominated for Tony Awards.
Bullets Over Broadway has been nominated for a total of six Tony Awards, six Drama Desk Awards, and won three Outer Critic Circle Awards, but missed a coveted Tony award nomination for Best Musical. Perhaps some feel that the show didn’t warrant the accolade due to the fact that the score is comprised of period songs (smartly arranged by Andy Einhorn), but After Midnight does the same with the music of Duke Ellington and if we scroll back the clock to 2000, another Stroman creation, Contact, won Best Musical without an original score or live music. But fretting over such details is like trying to fish a waterlogged body out of the East River.
At its best, Bullets delivers boisterous humor, athletic dancing and comedic one-liners that exemplify Woody Allen’s craftsmanship. Missing from the Tony roll call are Heléne Yorke and Marin Mazzie, who both deliver spot-on humor and big vocals. Also looked over is Brooks Ashmanskas, whose doughnut-binging performance literally bounces around the stage. Less successful is Zach Braff. Though he carries the plotline, he doesn’t carry the show and occasionally resorts to Woody-isms that include hunched shoulders and a vocal affectation that doesn’t suit him. Overall though, he’s a charmer and manages to keep up with his more seasoned co-stars. Karen Ziemba, impossibly tasked with creating a role originated on film by the brilliantly quirky Tracy Ullman, also misses the mark.
Minor discrepancies aside, Stroman keeps the ensemble on its feet through countless incarnations and characterizations. They are true triple threats and create a dynamic framework for the ensuing shenanigans. I hope Bullets Over Broadway finds its audience and doesn’t end up an early casualty of the season.
Bullets Over Broadway
St. James Theatre
246 West 44th Street