Bullets Over Broadway Written by Woody Allen Direction and Choreography by Susan Stroman St. James Theater Cast: Brooks Ashmanskas – Warner Purcell Zach Braff – David Shayne Nick Cordero – Cheech Marin Mazzie – Helen Sinclair Vincent Pastore – Nick Valenti Betsy Wolfe – Ellen Lenny Wolpe – Julian Marx Heléne Yorke – Olive Neal Karen Ziemba – Eden Brent Once upon a time Broadway theater-goers’ mantra was “bring on the girls,” and shows were mostly opulent costumes, engaging settings and pure, unadulterated fun. Ever since Oklahoma, ostensibly the first big hit with a thought-provoking book and integrated musical numbers, writers and directors have searched, sometimes in vain, for ways to raise the stakes and engage audiences minds as well as their hearts.
Bullets Over Broadway, written by Woody Allen, who based it on the screenplay of his eponymous 1994 movie written with Douglas McGrath, and directed and choreographed by Susan Stroman, is in many ways a throwback to less complicated theater when a big, splashy musical was an exercise in enjoyment. As the curtain, a brightly executed pastiche of chorus girls’ legs and trombones, lifts, Cheech (Nick Cordero), channeling his inner gangster in a dark suit and fedora, steps out, raises a machine gun and shoots, spraying the show’s title in lights. I was hooked.
The plot is one of those screwball situations that don’t benefit from being taken seriously, Olive (Heléne Yorke), a chorus girl with a raucous voice and a bird brain who aspires to be a leading lady, begs her mobster-boyfriend Nick Valenti (the talented Vincent Pastore) to make her wish come true. Nick bankrolls a “serious” play by aspiring writer David Shayne (Zack Braff.) David forsakes his bohemian pals and adorable girlfriend Ellen (Betsy Wolfe) to work with producer Julian Marx (Lenny Wolpe) who casts a slightly-faded star, Helen Sinclair (Marin Mazzie in a great performance) as the leading lady and finds a small part as a psychiatrist for Olive. The rest of the cast includes antic Eden Brent (Karen Ziemba), the one company member dressed and wigged unflatteringly, who shares her life with her (live) dog, Mr. Woofles. Warner Purcell (Brooks Ashmanskas), who falls for Olive, eats anything not nailed down and dances like he’s filled with feathers. There is also a full panoply of singing, dancing chorus girls, flappers and Red Caps clad in minuscule black shorts and tight red jackets who tap atop a train bound for out of town tryouts.
David’s play is transformed when Cheech takes over writing it. David knows he has sold out but has fallen for glamorous Helen, who is clearly using him to advance her career. Kay takes up with boho intellectual Sheldon Flender (James Moye), but her heart isn’t in it. Olive, better at bump-and-grind than acting, is wrecking the show; Cheech unable to bear her performance, shoots her, enraging Nick who has Cheech blown away in a snappy choreographed chase up and around the play onstage. At the end, David and Kay reunite; the actors carry on and the whole company dances as the curtain falls.
The production is expansive and undoubtedly expensive with costumes that nod to the twenties by William Ivey Long; clever scenic design by Sandro Loquasto and an abundance of imaginative dancing staged by Susan Stroman, winner of five Tony awards as well as plaudits from the Drama Desk, Critics Circle and recipient of the George Abbott Award for Distinguished Achievement in Musical Theater. Most of the period music including golden oldies like Up a Lazy River, Let’s Misbehave, I’m Sitting on Top of the World and Runnin’ Wild fits in effectively, especially the number when Olive and Warner bounce on spring-filled chairs, but some transitions are clunky. Occasionally, too much effort shows as in Olive’s Hot Dog song and the numerous times a hand shuts David’s mouth to keep him quiet but overall, Bullets is as airy as a cream puff and just as sweet a treat. Don’t take it seriously; just revel in the dancing feet, fine performances and sumptuous costumes and sets—you’ll have a ball.