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BULLETS OVER BROADWAY – Woody Allen Gets Hit In the Crossfire
REVIEWED BY: JAMES MURRAY
In 1994 the Woody Allen movie classic premiered with an “A” roster of talent; Chazz Palminteri, Jim Broadbent, Imelda Stanton, John Cusak, Jennifer Tilly and the brilliant Dianne Wiest in a star turn, netting her an Academy Award. Bullets Over Broadway is, in my opinion, one if Allen’s cleverest and funniest films about the lengths an artist will go to protect the integrity of their work.
Rife with 1920s gangsters, malls, flappers and eccentric prima dona actors, Bullets has everything it needs to translate into a great musical. What great opportunities for old fashioned dance numbers, a hilariously witty script and a plot that combines Broadway theatre with murder and extortion. Needless to say I had high expectations for seeing this new musical. With a musical score of existing songs from the 20s and 30s it seemed like it could not go wrong.
Bullets Over Broadway is a bullet ridden love letter from Woody Allen to the Broadway theatre. The young playwright who takes himself very seriously, David Shayne (played by a talented and painfully mugging- over-the-top Michael Williams) is tired of having his plays flop through lousy productions and bad directors. He gets a call from his agent, Julian Marx (Rick Grossman as the spot-on slimy New York agent) that he has found an investor, Nick Valenti (the superb Michael Corvino) who is a gangster with his screechy, untalented mall Olive Neal (the screeching Jemma Jane) whose main talent is picking up quarters from a table (I will leave this to your imagination). Olive wants to be la star so Valenti provides all of the money for Shane’s production if he will star Olive in a big role.
After meeting Olive who demonstrates her “talent” with the Hot Dog Song (I leave that to your imagination as well) David is appalled by his pact with the devil but, being the Broadway prostitute he is, agrees to the stipulations as long as his agent agrees to snag him the Broadway over-the-hill diva Helen Sinclair (the extremely gifted but too young for the role Emma Stratton) and another star actor with an stress-eating addiction, Warner Purcell (the over-mugging Bradley Allan Zarr ) whose figure continues to bloom throughout the show.
Mob boss Valenti employs his main hitman Cheech to keep an eye on Olive whose eye, along with her other bodily parts, wander. As Cheech sits in the corner during rehearsals he becomes a play doctor to playwright Shane and transforms the show into a hit. There is only one fly in the ointment for Cheech and it is Olive who he feels is destroying his play and he must do something about it.
When the curtain rose at the Private Bank Theatre (the old Shubert) I was dazzled by the outstanding chorus of the flappers dancing their hearts out, reminiscent of Frank Losser’s classic Guys and Dolls. In fact this cast of Bullets Over Broadway has some of the finest, most athletic dancers and best choreography (kudos to Clare Cook in recreating Stroman’s original choreography) I have seen since Disney’s Newsies. It is apparent that this production has a Broadway stamp all over it from magnificent costumes from six-time Tony award winning William Ivey Long, the slick set design by Jason Ardizzone-West to the amount of talent in this large cast. Which makes it more disheartening when parts of it misfire. And it had many misfires, largely from way over the top acting, screeching and unintelligible dialogue (especially from the actresses playing Jemma Jane’s Olive Neal and Emma Stratton’s Helen Sinclair).
This is not to say these are two very talented performers; they are. However with the Looney Toons over-the-top direction of Jeff Whiting (based upon the original direction of Susan Stroman), these two women push so hard to make us laugh it became painful to watch and kills most of their laughs. There was little to no applause at the end of most scenes and apparent that many people in the audience had as much trouble understanding the dialogue as I did (especially when singing). There was about as much subtlety as Cheech’s machine gun. And I found this to mar most performances with the exception of Jeff Brooks’ Cheech (who clearly steals the show and brings the house down with his number Taint Nobody’s Business If I Do) and his mob boss Nick Valenti (Michael Corvino who gives a clean, down-to-earth performance).
It was apparent at the curtain call that Jeff Brooks’ Cheech is the star of Bullets Over Broadway. People stood and cheered when he came out. If there is one reason to sit through this ear-splitting show it is to see a star at work. Brooks not only can act, but this man can dance! In all of the theatre I have seen in my life I have seen very few who are a triple threat and can stop a show like Brooks. He is a treasure of the musical theatre and clearly the anchor of the show.
Whatever charm the film has is completely mowed under gunfire in this musical where most of the songs are either shrieked or belted out with the amplification of the orchestra so loud it drowns out the singers and made we want to cover my ears or run from the theatre to avoid the splintering sound. Ever since Wicked came along the new musical trend has devolved into how loud and long someone can belt a song which may appeal to some of the younger gang but makes those of us who grew up with classical musical theatre want to head for the doors. In fact it is getting to the point where I have become hesitant to either venture out to a new musical or take ear plugs and aspirin with me.
Bullets Over Broadway is at its best when played straight from the heart. For it is then the characters cease to be caricatures and we can relish some of the classic moments we cherish from the hit movie where Woody Allen’s eccentricity and wit can truly shine. If several of the awkwardly placed and sometimes forced and unnecessary songs could be cut and replaced by more of Allen’s brilliant dialogue, and the characters come across real this show would fire on all cylinders. In its current form it is more like experiencing the Valentine’s Day massacre than the glory of an old Broadway musical.