Bullets Over Broadway

St. James Theatre
New York, NY
It's madcap mayhem on the Great White Way with Bullets Over Broadway flying at the St. James Theatre.  This merry-to-round of a 1994 Woody Allen comedy, reset into a musical comedy with original pop tunes from the 1920s, is an frothy old-fashioned fun-fest.  Thanks goes to writer Allen and director/choreographer Susan Stroman, both of whom know what laughs and jazzy tunes are all about.

Allen and Douglas McGrath's screenplay retells the backstage tale of upcoming playwright, David Shayne (Zach Braff), who is finally getting his play produced.  That's good news. But the bad news is that the money comes from a mobster, Nick Valenti (Vincent Pastore, The Sopranos), who demands that his ditzy girlfriend, Olive, get the major part she demands, with "lots of lines."  The bird-brained Olive is played by Heléne Yorke (Masters of Sex), currently a chorine in the Atta-Girl chorus line, but David and his producer, Julian Marx, played by Lenny Wolpe (The Drowsy Chaperone), have their eyes on the glamorous has-been, Helen Sinclair (Marin Mazzie).

Bullets Over Broadway does not have a new plot nor are the songs new, but they fit the characters and move the plot along.  Stroman's imaginative direction and choreography bring out the music's delicious fun.  A line of gorgeously costumed Atta-Girls at Valenti's club open the show wagging their tiger tails in a raunchily cutesy "Tiger Rag" written by Harry DaCosta and the Original Dixieland Jazz Band members.  Trying to prove that she is an accomplished actress, Olive bumps and grinds out a burlesque tune, “I Want a Hot Dog for My Roll,” (Butterbeans and Susie).  No over-thinking needed for the song's subtext.

Braff is the Woody Allen prototype and does a fine job in his Broadway debut, although his character is overshadowed by Cheech, played with cool nonchalance by Nick Cordero.  Since David does not have the gift of colloquial dialogue, Cheech, Valenti's hit man, saves the show, rewriting lines reflecting how people really speak.  At the same time, he ironically croons Hoagy Carmichael's "Up a Lazy River," on the way to dump some body in the Gowanus Canal.  Cordero also nails his dancing flair in Stroman's imaginative gangster chorus to "T'Ain't Nobody's Biz-ness If I Do" (Porter Grainger and Everett Robbins) and "There'll Be Some Changes Made" (Benton Overstreet/Billy Higgins). This tune, like many of the others, get updated lyrics added by Glen Kelly.

Glammed to the max and sipping from her flask, Mazzie's Helen Sinclair soars over-the-top, using her rich theatrical voice ("They Go Wild Simply Wild, Over Me" by Fred Fisher and Joe McCarthy) with sly sidelong glances at the audience and a trademark appeal to the smitten David, "Don't speak."

Brooks Ashmanskan is also outstanding, strutting, strolling and preening as the show's leading man, Warner Purcell, who has a weak spot for noshes. His duet with Olive, "Let's Misbehave," is Cole Porter's perfect lead-in to a clandestine affair. As the gangster, Valenti, Pastore has a tough mouth but a sweet song to sing to his Olive, "Baby, Ain't I Good To You" (Andy Razaf and Don Redman), although he can't always convince her that it's true.

Betsy Wolfe plays Ellen, a lovely singer and is persuasive as David's long-suffering fiancée-to-be.  She feels neglected as David grows besotted by Sinclair, and finally tells him, "I Ain't Gonna Play No Second Fiddle" (Bessie Smith). This evolves into a catchy back-and-forth between David and Ellen.  Karen Ziemba (Contact) is underused as hyperkinetic actress Eden Brent with “Mr. Woofles,” an 8-pound Pomeranian with stage presence.

Santo Loquasto's sets extend from stylized city buildings to Valenti's garish Art Deco apartment and backstage at the Belasco Theater.  Donald Holder adds fanciful lighting.  William Ivey Long went wild, simply wild, designing flapper finery. Paul Huntley is perfect with hair and wigs and Angeline Avallone ups the glam with her makeup.

With Woody Allen's humor and Susan Stroman's theatrical magic, Bullets Over Broadway grabs the tiger by the tail and delivers a deluxe fun-fest.

(Photo: Zach Braff and Marin Mazzie by Joan Marcus)

Elizabeth Ahlfors
Cabaret Scenes
April 2014