NEW YORK – Woody Allen’s 1994 film “Bullets Over Broadway” arrived this spring as a big- time Broadway musical at the St. James Theater on West 44th Street. It is not one of the smash-hit movie adaptations like “The Producers” or Frank Loesser’s classic take on Damon Runyon’s “Guys and Dolls,” but the show does have more than a tinge of that old-fashioned musical theater quality that audiences seem to love.
It has been put together by a stalwart team of Broadway-wise craftsmen and directed and choreographed by Susan Stroman, who has staged many successful musicals like “The Producers.” It is performed by a large cast who knows every laugh in Mr. Allen’s script and neglects none of them. Mr. Allen’s film was co-written with Douglas McGrath, but since Mr. McGrath was preoccupied by writing the book for another musical – “Beautiful – The Carole King Musical,” which is playing a few blocks away at the Stephen Sondheim Theater on West 43rd Street, Mr. Allen took on the writing chores of “Bullets” solo.
Mr. Allen doesn’t tamper with the film’s basic plot, set in the Gotham of 1929. Top gangster Nick Valenti (the familiar Vincent Pastore of “The Sopranos”) offers a young, very serious playwright, David Shayne (Zach Braff, who seems to be finding himself and his performance in this, his first musical), the money to produce and direct his play as long as he features Mr. Valenti’s ill-equipped actress/girlfriend Olive Neal (Heléne Yorke).
David also gets hemmed in by a pushy leading lady, Helen Sinclair (Marin Mazzie), who in the film was played by Dianne Wiest, who won an Oscar for her portrayal. She played Helen as a serious, icy alcoholic, and her famous words were “Don’t speak.” Ms. Mazzie speaks the same words but instead drinks lighter fluid, unwisely playing the role comedically.
There is a nice over-the-top performance by the play’s leading man, Warren Purcell (Brooks Ashmanskas), but the talented Karen Ziemba is wasted as Eden Brent, playing the secondary actress in Shayne’s play with a dog named Mr. Woofles.
The best role of all is Olive’s gangster bodyguard Cheech, played by Nick Cordero. It is well-written and provides perhaps the funniest character on stage. Cheech, it turns out, has unknown skills at doctoring a play. Half the fun is in watching this ordinary, street-wise guy help the pretentious, know-it-all author, who doesn’t seem to have a clue about playwriting or theater or life.
“Bullets Over Broadway” is particularly amusing, edging on hilarious, in Act Two, when Shayne’s play has its out-of-town tryout at the Wilbur Theater in Boston just as everything is falling apart in his dismal opus.
The main chafes I have with “Bullets Over Broadway” are Ms. Stroman’s tone of the show and her take on Mr. Allen’s humor. It is too often Brooksian rather than Allenesque. Mr. Allen’s humor is like his personage on screen and in life: wispy and wry; while Mr. Brooks is clownish and loud and perhaps easier to stage in a musical. I guess, if the actors make an audience laugh enough, that is what directors and producers want to hear. But “Bullets” on screen had an original strain of something tender and touching under its witty surface that is missing in the musical. And it is something I longed for, as have others, in “Bullets Over Boadway”: a little Woody Allen humor.
The show moves along well with savvy staging skill, and Ms. Stroman gives us fine period Charleston dances, nightclub routines and a brilliant male tap ballet number, “Tain’t Nobody’s Biz-ness If I Do,” for the gangsters, eight of the finest dancers on Broadway or in the world. It is a knockout and is Ms. Stroman at her best.
Since Mr. Allen has been quoted as saying he hates the new music being written for Broadway shows, the alternative that he accepted was existing music from the show’s period. There are some 22 retro tunes that he and Ms. Stroman chose and there are some winners, like Ray Henderson’s “I’m Sitting on Top of the World,” Cole Porter’s “Let’s Misbehave” and standards like “There’s a Broken Heart for Every Light on Broadway” and “Yes! We Have No Bananas.”
All this is fine, but “Bullets Over Broadway” makes you wonder where to find some new musical theater creativity. Isn’t a musical supposed to be a creative collaboration of a book-writer, music composer and lyricist? When it worked, isn’t that what made the American musical’s reputation as a work of art? But today, it seems like a pick-and-choose or paste-up of material from a bygone era. “Bullets Over Broadway” was put together by top-notch intelligent theater folk. Couldn’t they have given us something fresher and more exciting?
P.S. Not to harangue, but there is some strong language in “Bullets Over Broadway,” which seems to be out of place in a musical that takes place in 1929. Wasn’t there censorship in those days?
Critic Bernard Carragher lives in New York City and covers the arts and entertainment.