You would think a show so tellingly titled “Bullets Over Broadway” would fit the “Great White Way” smoother then Cinderella’s glass slipper. It’s not that it lacks for an evening of entertainment – especially strong are the formidable dance numbers. Yet ultimately you leave the theater puzzled (“Huh?”) rather then pleased (“Wow!”) For those of you not familiar with the film, you may very well see this show thru a different lens… yet not necessarily a clearer, brighter one. I saw this show some 6 weeks ago ( yes, I have seen the film) and it finally dawned on me, after much deliberation, what’s wrong here.
But the good stuff – and there is much – first.
When you base a musical – replete with song and dance numbers – on a hit movie written by Woody Allen and Douglas McGrath, the odds are substantially good that the transition will be a successful one. The book is terrific, set in the roaring 20s of NYC, the story centers around a struggling, serious playwright who, at long last, has his play financed and produced – and here’s the rub – by a goon of a mobster. The deal is that the mobster’s talent less moll girlfriend has to have a part in his play. Cash compromises class. So the stage is set, literally, and the audience is taken on a Damon Runyonesque ride replete with hysterical subplots and some truly aching belly laughs, literally and figuratively! This show is packed with juicy one liners, the visual jokes (especially one involving an actor’s weight) are still good, and the plot itself – such a riotously clever story line – maintains the ultimate laughs. The cast, especially Nick Cordero as Cheech and Betsy Wolfe (who has one sensational solo number) as the playwright’s girlfriend are, for the most part, perfect in their parts. Who knew Zach Braff, as the young playwright, could carry a tune … while the legendary Karen Ziemba carries a real doggie on stage?! Too cute. The usually fabulous Marin Mazzie (I will NEVER forget her in “Kiss Me Kate”) is perhaps a bit too heavy handed, especially with her one note joke, but I’ll let that go for now.
This delicious visual production itself is splendid, with well imagined sets by Santo Loquasto, spot on lighting by Donald Holder and rich costumes by William Ivey Long (this trio represents the best in the business, Jordan Roth of Jujamcyn so knows his stuff). They hit it out of the park. You immediately know where you are … yet never quite where you are headed…even when you think you’ve figured it all out.
The amazingly multi-talented Susan Stroman is at the helm here as director, choreographer and in many instances, especially in the choreography, we hit great heights. The dance numbers are all razzle dazzle – clever, imaginative (especially in the use of movement in and around the props) and indicative of the best Broadway has to offer. Nothing better then a good, old fashioned Broadway tap number, and Stroman takes this standard up to another level … truly Stromanesque. The music is a puzzlement, many of the numbers are popular tunes – not necessarily the best – from the 1920s. I suspect there are some original filler numbers among the familiar ones – yet no musical credit is given. Were there really songs way back when titled “I’ll be Glad When you’re Dead, You Rascal You” and “The Hot Dog Song?”
Some of the numbers, despite the onstage gaiety (although, I wonder if the cast is having any real fun up there?) go way too long – we get the joke – less would be oh so much more, the “hot dog” number is especially trying. WE GET IT!
This entire production has lost the film’s slow subtlety and sweetness in the move from screen to stage (such a common transition these days, and though theater and film are two diverse mediums, I feel a comparison is fair as the stage producers bank on this brand connection) and one usually accomplished with more fluidity. With this production, we go backwards, from comedy down to slapstick. The seams here are apparent, the charm is gone… it’s like moving from innocence to experience without the necessary adolescent stage in between. It’s so heavy handed, you feel hit over the head – bumps and thumps instead of slaps and taps. The cast is working so hard – too hard – they ultimately exhaust you. You should never leave a Broadway musical tired and ready for bed, rather you should be sent soaring and eager to dance all night. When a major, obviously expensive Broadway musical, with talent galore both on and offstage, not to mention the remarkable Woody Allen as its Godfather, ends with the unremarkable, and downright dumb “Yes, We Have No Bananas” where can you go from there? Straight home. Again, I say “Huh?”
If you want to see a real show stopping, thoroughly entertaining, tune filled, Broadway show with timeless music from the 20s and 30s and great production values…. wait for a revival of “42nd Street.” It’s not that this is a bad show, it’s just kinda disappointing.
Have you ever experienced disappointment at the theater? Do share your story below!
By: Joanne Theodorou