Thursday, June 5, 2014

They Go Wild, Simply Wild (and Someone Should Rein Them In)

Review: Bullets Over Broadway

"Don't speak!"  Marin Mazzie forcibly silences costar Zach Braff, presumably for stepping on her lines.

Bullets Over Broadway, the new musical comedy based on Woody Allen's Oscar-winning 1994 film of the same name, is a curious beast.  It feels *this close* to being a great show, and yet in its current form it would be hard to argue it's even a good show.  Throughout the evening the show seems just a couple of tweaks away from becoming amazing, the kind of instant classic spiritual predecessors The Producers and Hairspray were when they arrived a little over a decade ago.  But Bullets never gets there, suffering from a misguided and slightly manic energy that sabotages the best intentions of its cast and gifted director/choreographer Susan Stroman.  Rather than a laugh-filled evening of breezy musical comedy, the show ends up being slightly exhausting because it wants so desperately for you to like it.

Set in the 1920s, the plot of Bullets follows the attempts of playwright David Shayne to secure funding for his latest play, something that is proving difficult given the string of flops he's written.  Producer Julian Marx manages to raise all the funding from a single donor, who Shayne later discovers is mob boss Nick Valenti.  As a condition of the financing, Shayne must find a part for Olive Neal, Valenti's dumb, talentless girlfriend.  Watching over Olive is Cheech, a mob enforcer who has some surprisingly insightful suggestions for Shayne's play, which also stars the boozy, fading diva Helen Sinclair.  Although there's a fair amount going on in Woody Allen's book (including several characters and multiple affairs not mentioned here), the show is surprisingly easy to follow and the characters are all clearly delineated.  The abundance of characters, some superfluous, necessitates a certain lack of depth in their characterizations, but Allen has provided just enough detail to each that they don't feel like complete ciphers.

Thankfully for Allen, he and Susan Stroman have assembled a strong cast to sell his material, which admittedly is better suited for the silver screen than the Broadway stage.  Making his Broadway debut as David Shayne, TV star Zach Braff does a fine job as the nebbish everyman at the show's center.  He anchors the show with a convincing relatability that allows the supporting players to mug like their lives depended on it.  Marin Mazzie is clearly having a ball playing the high strung diva Helen Sinclair, in a performance that makes more than a passing nod toward Norma Desmond.  Mazzie lets some of her bits go on a tad too long, but these minor moments of self indulgence don't detract from the finely honed ludicrousness of a woman who thinks lighter fluid is a perfectly acceptable substitute for alcohol.  She sounds fantastic belting out her big numbers (particularly her introduction, "They Go Wild, Simply Wild, Over Me") and her delivery of Helen's catchphrase "Don't Speak" is spot on every time.

After Mazzie, Nick Cordero has the most fully formed character as mob enforcer/ghostwriter Cheech.  Cordero's stage presence is an excellent combination of tough guy machismo and musical comedy daffiness, and he is gifted with perhaps the best written arc of any character in the show.  Cordero also sells his Act I production number, "Tain't Nobody's Biz-ness If I Do," with aplomb, making the number the most effective bit of Golden Age razzmatazz in the show.  Brooks Ashmanskas is absolutely hysterical as Warren Purcell, the play's pretentious leading man with a compulsive eating problem.  Ashmanskas' performance is a perfectly tuned caricature of every pretentious actor in existence, all liquid U's and affected speech patterns, and his sprightly delivery of "Let's Misbehave" is one of the show's highlights.

Ashmanskas' partner in that duet, Helene Yorke's ditzy Olive, is more problematic.  Yorke has moments of brilliance as an aspiring actress clearly out of her depth, but tends to bulldoze over her best bits with an abrasive delivery that limits her appeal.  Rather than being a despicable person you can't wait to see more of, Yorke's Olive wears out her welcome in a way that makes it harder to laugh at the oftentimes excellent character work she's doing.  That said, Yorke's "I Want a Hot Dog for My Roll" is one of the show's laugh out loud moments (I particularly enjoyed her "interpretive dancing" during the song's vamp), and given the plot twists of the show's latter half it may be that Allen and Stroman want you to hate Olive.  Meanwhile, Karen Ziemba and Betsy Wolfe are wasted in throwaway roles that have little bearing on the show's plot, which is a shame.

Director/choreographer Susan Stroman has again wrangled a beast of a show into a slick, fast paced evening of theatre.  Unfortunately, her choreography doesn't seem as inspired as usual, because most of the big production numbers feel shoehorned into the narrative instead of organically growing out of it.  The chorus girls in the show all look lovely, but none of their fizzy song-and-dance routines belong in such a character-based comedy.  Stroman also appears to have encouraged her actors to go bigger in scenes where a touch of restraint would have been appreciated, which contributes to the manic feeling of the evening.  And it must be said that Bullets is saddled with one of the most ridiculous non sequiturs of a finale to ever hit the musical stage, and while the idea likely originated from Allen (who handpicked all of the musical numbers from pre-existing 1920s tunes) Stroman really should have put her foot down and told him to come up with a better idea.

Design-wise, Bullets Over Broadway is passable but nothing extraordinary.  Santo Loquasto's set takes us to the show's many locations with speed and occasionally even the spark of invention, but the drab color palette works in opposition with the broad comedic style Stroman and her actors favor.  This more restrained, naturalistic approach also puts a damper on William Ivey Long's costumes, as the Tony-winning designer has always been at his best when allowed to go over the top.  Donald Holder's lights and Peter Hylenski's sound design are perfectly fine as well, even if they are not particularly memorable.

There is plenty to enjoy in Bullets Over Broadway, but there's also plenty working against it.  Woody Allen's particular brand of comedy hasn't quite made the transition to the stage, even though he's done an excellent job of plotting a show that could easily be confusing in a lesser writer's hands.  The cast is certainly game, but they have a tendency to bludgeon a joke rather than finesse it; while still earning their fair share of laughs, the cast could get more if they allowed the material to land rather than forcing it.  Susan Stroman is a reliable ringmaster for this comic circus, keeping the show moving without becoming so bogged down in the staging that she completely neglects the story.  It is an admirable effort, even if Bullets ultimately fails to take off in the way its creators intend it to.

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