[ Ed. Note: Click all photos for full size. ]
The art deco charms of Broadway’s St. James theater surrounded the proscenium as the orchestra let loose with a jazzy musical Prologue that opened with strains of the old hit song, “Runnin’ Wild,” while an onstage mobster noisily writes out the show’s title in bright lights activated by repeated rounds from his machine gun. Then it is on to the considerable fun of this rollicking show, BULLETS OVER BROADWAY The Musical, written by Woody Allen (based on his 1994 film comedy, co-authored by Douglas McGrath), and skillfully directed and choreographed here by Susan Stroman. Combining nicely with the musical adaptations and additional lyrics for the show’s many familiar songs, Stroman’s crisply creative direction yields a very convincing look at the late Roaring Twenties.
Curtain up, and we are transported to a prohibition era New York nightclub via a sassy welcome from the club’s Atta-Girls showgirls as they belt out a rousing, “Tiger Rag.” The nightclub’s gravel-voiced owner is gangland mob boss, Nick Valenti (Vincent Pastore), and in this opening scene he is enjoying time with his ditzy girlfriend, Olive (Heléne Yorke), as they duet for a pleasant, “Gee Baby, Ain’t I Good to You?” Miss Yorke gives us the epitome of the whiny-voiced “dumb blonde,” and we quickly learned that she wants to be more than just a stripper and wouldn’t mind again playing the role of Lady Macbeth, “… but this time not in pasties!”
The action moves to the cleverly sliding set (Scenic Designer, Santo Loquasto) depicting the rooftop of the apartment building where playwright, David Shayne (Zach Braff) lives with girlfriend, Ellen (Betsy Wolfe). David has finished his new play and gets the exciting news that Mr. Valenti is prepared to produce it (with the caveat that girlfriend Olive gets a featured role). Idealistic David explains to Ellen that though he wants his play produced, he won’t allow its content to be tampered with in order to “…pander to the commercial Broadway audience.” The lovely voices of these two talented actors quickly become evident as they duet for a, “Blues My Naughty Sweetie Gives to Me,” that is nicely seasoned with appealing counterpoints.
There’s more lively nightlife dancing back at the club from the Flapper girls draped in scanty mink costumes. Costume designer, William Ivey Long, has brought elegance and class to a wide assortment of flashy designs for the showgirls and leading ladies. Meanwhile, the men look gangland-ominous in their sharp dark suits as rival mob gangs join the gals for some fancy terpsichore in the whirling, “’Tain’t a Fit Night Out for Man or Beast,” a gangster ballet that is peppered with machine gun action and the brassy sounds of the orchestra (Musical Director/Conductor, Andy Einhorn). Zany comedy follows with the double entendres and costume hilarity of Olive’s outlandish and not-to-be-missed, “Hot Dog Song.”
Next, a stunning pop-up set brings us to the glamorous and skyline-surrounded penthouse apartment of actress, Helen Sinclair, (Marin Mazzie). We find her in one of the show’s most elegant costumes, a shimmering silver lounge robe that looks like it was hand crafted from Christmas tree tinsel. Helen is the sought after star that David wants for the lead in his play, and when the vain Miss Sinclair joins agent, Julian Marx (Lenny Wolpe), for “They Go Wild, Simply Wild, Over Me,” we are treated to our first taste of Miss Mazzie’s electrifying voice. Wow!
Like any gangland musical worthy of the name, there are assorted mob “hits.” Here they often terminate amusingly in the Gowanus Canal to the gently ironic strains of “Up the Lazy River,” as sung by a clear audience cast favorite, Nick Cordero, in the role of tough guy gangster, Cheech. Cheech is an aspiring writer himself, and provides plenty of laughs as he guides David toward numerous rewrites of his once-sacred script. But David is unperturbed as Mr. Braff delivers a sparkling, “I’m Sitting on Top of the World.” Meanwhile, Olive develops a crush on a fellow cast member, the amusingly haughty Warner (Brooks Ashmanskas), a fop who is almost always eating during rehearsals, and sounds a bit like Bert Lahr as The Cowardly Lion. The couple has a mischievous and delightful romp for the song, “Let’s Misbehave.”
Mazzie launches another winner with a thrilling performance of “There’s a Broken Heart for Every Light on Broadway,” that had me thinking what a perfect vehicle the number would have been for longtime Broadway performer, Sheila Smith (Mame, Company, Follies, Sugar etc.). Not to be outdone, the Atta Girls return with some fancy Charleston dancing and a timely tune for the crime world with, “(I’ll Be Glad When You’re Dead) You Rascal You.” As for the fellas, gravel voiced, Cheech, leads the gangsters in the threatening, “Tain’t Nobody’s Biz-ness If I Do.” The song explodes with more of Stroman’s fine choreography as these oh-so-serious hoods bring military precision to their straight-faced tap dance fireworks.
At the close of Act One, in a beautifully staged Grand Central Station, the dazzling full cast lets loose with the “Runnin’ Wild” number that had only been hinted at in the Prologue. Rehearsals are over, and everyone is boarding the onstage train for the trip to take David’s play to Boston for its out-of-town tryout. Of course the fun continues in a juicy Act Two that is full of such musical delights as the mellow and threatening, “They’ll Be a Change in the Weather,” from Cheech. It is a prime example of the many cleverly adapted lyrics from Music Supervisor, Glen Kelly that enhance this witty production. Miss Mazzie’s diva credentials are solidly reestablished with, “I Ain’t Gonna Play No Second Fiddle,” and then the train arrives back from Boston with snazzy dancing from the Red Cap girls for a slinky, “Good Old New York.” There are some romantic twists and turns for Ellen as the very talented Miss Wolfe offers a joyous, “I’ve Found a New Baby,” that makes one wish this gal had more vocal numbers in the show. In the role of David, Mr. Braff shows off his fine voice as he pairs beautifully with Ellen for, “She’s Funny That Way,” but David’s song, “The Panic is On,” could well have been left on the cutting room floor. On the other hand, the full Company encore of, “Yes, We Have No Bananas,” was just one more reminder of what great fun this show has brought to Broadway.
BULLETS OVER BROADWAY continues at the St. James Theater, 246 West 44th Street, Manhattan; 212-239-6200, telecharge.com. Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes.
WITH: 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) and Jim Borstelmann (Vendor, Victim, Ensemble).
Sounds like a good one
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