Bullets Over Broadway

  • Our critic's rating:
    April 1, 2014
    Review by:
    Tulis McCall

    Review by Tulis McCall

    For those of you who have been living under a rock, 'Bullets Over Broadway' is based on the movie of the same name, both written by Woody Allen and Douglas McGrath. Somewhere along the line, there sprang an idea to not only bring it to Broadway, which might have been a good idea, but to add music to it in the form of songs from the 1920’s and 30’s to which new lyrics would be added. In addition, the characters would be blown up into very loud, very one note figures. Between the music and the volume, the heart of this story has been surgically removed.

    The time is 1929 and a young playwright (why are they ALWAYS young?), David Shayne (Zach Braff) is living in sin with his gal Ellen (Betsy Wolfe). Nothing he has written has been successfully produced, and if his current story doesn’t get a nod, the two of them may be headed back home to Pittsburg. Fortunately David’s manager Julian Marx (Lenny Wolpe) finds the money when an “acquaintance” – as in a gangster named Nick Valenti (Vincent Pastore) needs a vehicle for his doll Olive, (Heléne Yorke) who wants to be a star. Hands shake. Deal is made. Off we go.

    In addition to Olive, the manager is able to recruit Helen Sinclair (Marin Mazzie) – think Norma Desmond - who is a performer “past her prime” but hungry for another shot at fame. In addition, they pull in Warner Purcell (Brooks Ashmanskas) who is a catch, but who may eat himself out of his own costume and Eden Brant (Karen Ziemba) who is one of those amiable and spunky sidekicks with a dog, Mr. Wooffles (Trixie), the size of a large purse (who is not very happy up there and totally steals any scene s/he is in).

    The rehearsals begin, and it is obvious to everyone that Olive is not up to the task of creating a character, never mind actually reading and comprehending the script. Because her man has the m-o-n-e-y, however, Olive remains. As a precaution, Nick has sent his own personal bodyguard, Cheech (Nick Cordero) along to chaperone Olive, who needs no protection. As the rehearsals drag on, and Cheech is left to do nothing but listen, he begins to have some ideas about the play. As in: the structure, the plot and pretty much everything else. His offhand remark after a rehearsal captures the attention of the cast, and this prompts David to seek Cheech out for counsel. In short order it is Cheech who is writing the play (that we never see) and David hurtles between elation that all is going well and guilt the size of the Titanic because he is masquerading as the author.

    Love relationships blossom and fizzle and bloom again. Murder hangs in the air. And the show must, as it always does, go on. That is pretty much it. Well, there is the dancing which is beyond delicious when it appears. The opening number with the women performing Tiger Rag is dazzling, but the rest of the women’s numbers are tame even though these gals are fit and disciplined. The men, on the other hand, are given many a chance to leap and twirl, often doing both at once. The Ain’t Nobody’s Business number is a standout. Men in suits and fedoras tap dancing – what can I say… Sigh.

    Other than the dancing and vocal work, there was not a lot to cheer about in this production. Mr. Allen’s book locks the characters into their own small spheres. The additional lyrics by Gene Kelly are not on par with the original. As to the performances, Braff paces the stage like a dramatic high school thespian and spends the entire show in a concave position – in order to prove that he is anxious I suppose. He lacks the spark that this character needs to have in order to pull this story along. Marin Mazzie’s pipes are sublime. Her voice is positively liquid gold, so it is too bad she has so little time or opportunity to let loose. As to Helen Sinclair, all we get is the scaffold of this woman, and the references to her drinking lighter fluid etc. are just not funny. Heléne Yorke may be doing some serious damage to her vocal chords with her chosen grating voice that never, not for one nanosecond, varies. Ditto Cordero when he sings. Ashmanskas and Ziemba are solid, dependable, light and charming as they can be, but they too have little to work with in this script.

    There’s not a lot of “there” there.

    Everyone is doing their darndest, and there is some terrific talent on that stage. But the whole ends up being less than the sum of its parts, in spite of the splendid set (Santo Loquasto) and costumes (William Ivey Long). Watching this production was like biting into a chocolate bunny and discovering that it is hollow and tastes like wax. For all the energy that was expended in creating and performing this show, there should be a lot more to say than, “Is that all there is?” But there you are. Incidentally, I am pretty certain that those were the exact words going through Mr. Bubbles' mind as s/he was poked, prodded and whisked about. Good thing dogs can’t talk.

    "The experience of watching the film was like being tickled, gently but steadily, into a state of mounting hysteria. From the get-go, the musical version, which stars a credible Zach Braff (doing Mr. Allen) and a misused Marin Mazzie(doing Norma Desmond), feels more like being head-butted by linebackers. Make that linebackers in blinding sequins."
    Ben Brantley for New York Times

    "Showgirls dressed like frisky tigers shake their moneymakers near the beginning of Woody Allen’s “Bullets Over Broadway” — and they’re a symbol, for this musical certainly works its tail off to tickle and delight."
    Joe Dziemianowicz for New York Daily News

    "Woody Allen’s adaptation of his 1994 movie checks all the boxes: zingers and puns, slapstick and visual gags, leggy showgirls and tap-dancing chorus boys, hammy stars and lavish set pieces. This is defiantly old-fashioned entertainment, and boy does it hit the spot!"
    Elisabeth Vincentelli for New York Post

    "It's an extremely funny, devilishly entertaining show from start to finish."
    Robert Feldberg for The Record

    "The show is a watered-down champagne cocktail that too seldom gets beyond its recycled jokes and second-hand characterizations to assert an exciting new identity."
    David Rooney for The Hollywood Reporter

    "The book (from Woody Allen’s own screenplay for his 1994 film) is feeble on laughs, and certain key performers don’t seem comfortable navigating the earthy comic idiom of burlesque. So, let’s call it close — but no cigar."
    Marilyn Stasio for Variety

    External links to full reviews from popular press...

    New York Times - New York Daily News - New York Post - The Record - Hollywood Reporter - Variety