Review: Bullets Over Broadway

Marin Mazzie in Bullets Over Broadway
(©Paul Kolnik)

Imagine a splashy Broadway musical comedy based on a beloved film, written by its original creator who once toiled for Sid Caesar on Your Show of Shows. It’s directed by Susan Stroman, and it’s playing at the St. James Theatre.

No, it’s not The Producers, although all of the details once applied. Rather, it’s Bullets Over Broadway, with Woody Allen having clearly learned a lesson from his former colleague Mel Brooks’ success and deciding to get in on the action.

Unfortunately, this familiar-seeming show doesn’t reach the heights of its not-so-distant predecessor. While it features the same elements of broad comedy and flashy staging, this effort adapted by Allen from his 1994 screenplay offers only mild fun instead of laugh out loud hilarity and musical bliss.

Its most distinguishing element is its score, featuring no original songs but rather tunes from the 1920’s and ‘30s ranging from the familiar (“Up a Lazy River,” “Tain’t Nobody’s Biz-ness If I Do,” “Let’s Misbehave,” “I’m Sitting on Top of the World”) to the obscure. In some cases featuring additional lyrics written by Glen Kelly, they fit into the vintage era storyline well enough, even if the show-closing “Yes, We Have No Bananas” is a stretch.

Allen’s book hews closely to his screenplay co-written by Douglas McGrath in its tale set in 1929 New York about struggling playwright David Shayne (Zack Braff), who finds his fortunes rising when gangster Nick Valenti (Vincent Pastore of The Sopranos) agrees to finance his new play on the condition that a plum role be given to his girlfriend Olive (Helene Yorke). Although desperate to maintain his artistic integrity, David, at the urging of his long-suffering producer (Lenny Wolpe), agrees. The production manages to snare aging diva Helen Sinclair (Marin Mazzie) for the leading role, with David soon finding his romantic attentions divided between his star and his loyal girlfriend Ellen (Betsy Wolfe).

Nick assigns his henchman Cheech (Nick Cordero) to keep a watchful eye on his girlfriend. But the menacing hoodlum soon takes on an even more important role when he begins making such worthwhile suggestions about the play that he essentially becomes David’s co-author.

Among the other colorful characters figuring in the action are the actors appearing in David’s play: Eden (Karen Ziemba), who never lets go of her beloved Pomeranian; and compulsive eater Warner (Brooks Ashmanaskas), whose ever expanding waistline wreaks havoc on his costumes.

Allen’s trademark gift for brilliant one-liners seems to have deserted him here, with more lines producing silence than howls. When informed that his gangster banker “has got his fingers in a number of pies,” David’s less than hilarious response is to ask, “He’s a baker?” Most of the show’s laughs are holdovers from the film, such as Helen’s amusingly repeated, hushed admonition, “Don’t speak!”

Director/choreographer Stroman has applied her usual expertise to the material, keeping things at a fast-moving pace and delivering several entertaining musical numbers. But for every one that scores, such as a terrific tap dancing routine performed by a group of hunky gangsters, there’s another one that misses: the less said about the dancing hot dogs in “The Hot Dog Song,” the better.

For the most part, the lead performances fail to match those in the film. Mazzie comes closest, having an advantage over the Oscar-winning Dianne Wiest in that she’s also a terrific singer. But Braff lacks the low-key, hangdog charm that John Cusack brought to the playwright; Yorke, screeching up a storm, has been encouraged to slavishly imitate Jennifer Tilly; and Cordero lacks the sly wit with which Chazz Palminteri infused his Cheech. The supporting players, less hampered by our memories of the film, generally fare better, with Vincent Pastore a lot of fun in his game efforts to croon such numbers as “Gee Baby, Ain’t I Good to You.”

From a technical standpoint, the show is first class all the way, with Santo Loquasto’s lavish sets and William Ivey Long’s colorful period costumes making major contributions. A lot of time, energy and effort have clearly been lavished on the production. But much like the rat-a-tat opening in which the show’s title is spelled out by a tommy gun, Bullets Over Broadway mainly shoots blanks.

St. James Theatre, 246 W. 44 th St. 800-447-7400.