Some critics, like Ben Brantley of the Times, have taken pot shots at the new musical version of Bullets Over Broadway, because it doesn’t seem very Woody Allen-like; it’s too loud and tries too hard to please. Well, I can tell you that it’s certainly not subtle, but it is spirited, and a fair amount of fun.
Considering that Woody himself did the adaptation from the movie, it is a little surprising that there isn’t more clever verbal humor. It’s all pretty broad, using the same characters and basic plot as the movie – the aspiring young playwright David gets the chance to have his play produced on Broadway, with the stipulation that Olive, the girlfriend of the gangster who’s the main backer, get a part. The bigger problem turns out to be that the play’s really not that good, and it takes the gangster’s lieutenant, Cheech, who’s at the rehearsals to keep an eye on Olive, to turn it into a hit.
So, will this Bullets Over Broadway be a hit itself? It’s got a first-rate cast, starting with Zach Braff, of Scrubs and Garden State fame, as David (the role John Cusack played in the film). He’s got that pleasing, Matthew Broderick/Everyman quality and, if anything, sings and dances better than Broderick. Vincent Pastore (Big Pussy from The Sopranos) doesn’t move all that gracefully as the gangster, but he doesn’t really have to, and he’s a passable singer.
Helene York as the moll Olive is pretty funny, with an accent that’s pure Cyndi Lauper, and the great Marin Mazzie chews the scenery as the aging diva, Helen Sinclair, played indelibly in the film by Dianne ("don't speak!") Wiest. With her wig and mannerisms, Mazzie kept reminding me of Carol Burnett. A couple of other Broadway vets, Brooks Ashmanskas and Karen Ziemba, get laughs, mostly with shtick involving food and a dog.
The real star has to be the director and choreographer, Susan Stroman. Using songs of the ‘20s and ‘30s (Woody Allen’s sweet spot), rather than an original score, she’s endlessly inventive with her dance numbers. One of my favorites comes near the end of Act One, when Cheech and his fellow gangsters perform “’Taint Nobody’s Biz-ness If I Do.” But for all of Stroman’s creativity, there’s a “connect-the-dots” quality when yet another classic song pops up to punctuate the plot.
Getting back to Marin Mazzie, the whole thing feels a bit like a sketch from The Carol Burnett Show, more than a Woody Allen movie. While the New York City intelligentsia might prefer Woody to Carol, there are probably more Carol Burnett fans out there overall, and if they can find their way to the St, James Theatre, Bullets could run on Broadway for a while.