Monday, May 12, 2014

Stroman’s Spree: Bullets Over Broadway

Heléne Yorke, Zach Braff and Lenny Wolpe in the musical Bullets Over Broadway (Photo by Sara Krulwich)

Bullets Over Broadway is such a lark that its tepid reviews and poor showing in the Tony nominations feel like a bad joke. The musical isn’t without its flaws. But I’m not sure what the people who put it together – Woody Allen, who adapted the screenplay he and Douglas McGrath had written for the 1994 movie; Susan Stroman, the director-choreographer; designers Santo Loquasto (sets), William Ivey Long (costumes) and Donald Holder (lighting); and Glen Kelly, who adapted the 1920s tunes – could have done to make it much more entertaining.

The plot, set in 1929, mixes show business and gangsters. David Shayne (Zach Braff, surprisingly charming and tuneful in the John Cusack role) is a playwright whose producer (Lenny Wolpe) finds a Mafioso named Nick Valenti (Vincent Pastore) to finance David’s latest lugubrious drawing-room drama. But Nick’s backing comes with a hidden price: David has to agree to cast Nick’s girl friend, a brain-addled club dancer named Olive Neal (Heléne Yorke), in one of the leads. The star is an alcoholic diva named Helen Sinclair (Marin Mazzie) who seduces David away from his long-suffering Greenwich Village inamorata Ellen (Betsy Wolfe) in order to get him to make concessions that she hopes will make her role more dynamic. The other major cast members are a highly respected English actor, Warner Purcell (Brooks Ashmanskas), with a tendency to overeat and a slightly dizzy character actress, Eden Brent (Karen Ziemba), who travels with a small dog known as Mr. Woofles. And there’s an unexpected addition to the entourage: at Valenti’s insistence, Olive is always escorted by a gangster named Cheech (Nick Cordero) who turns out to have what David lacks: unerring dramatic radar and an ear for natural dialogue.

Brooks Ashmanskas and Heléne Yorke (Photo by Paul Kolnik)
Is the musical as good as the movie? Not quite, but after all Allen has about two-thirds as much space, between numbers, to tell the same story (and recycle the same jokes), and he does a creditable job of slimming it down; he even improves on the ending. (He’s also built up the role of the pooch.) The main loss is the omission of Warner’s motivation for gorging himself: sheer terror, at first of reappearing on the boards and then of Cheech, who strong-arms him for making whoopee with Nick’s girl. (In the musical he just seems to have a thing for food.) Bullets Over Broadway has always been Allen’s least typical comedy, and when you sandwich it with songs and dances it really plays like what you suddenly realize it’s always been – something akin to Comden and Green’s backstage musicals, like On the Twentieth Century on stage and on screen The Band Wagon and of course Singin’ in the Rain. Olive’s character is Lina Lamont from Singin’ in the Rain as a gangster’s moll; her distinctive quality, aside from her glaring stupidity, is that while Nick Valenti makes everyone else around him tremble, she henpecks him mercilessly.

The show has a wonderful cast, and in addition to Braff, Yorke (last seen on TV’s Masters of Sex), Cordero (in the Chazz Palminteri part) and Wolfe are genuine finds. When Mary Louise Parker played Ellen, she gave it a quirky, Bohemian-intellectual quality, but most of the Greenwich Village humor is a casualty of the film-to-musical translation; what Ellen has instead is a big number in each act, each a duet with David, and Wolfe’s voice is a knockout. The two cast members with the most impressive musical-theatre creds are Marin Mazzie (Ragtime, Passion, Kathleen Marshall’s Kiss Me, Kate revival) and Karen Ziemba (Stroman’s Contact, Never Gonna Dance, Steel Pier). Ziemba has a small role – it’s the one Tracey Ullman played in the film – but brings a core of sanity to it, and Stroman was smart enough to give her her own number, the second-act opening, “There’s a New Day Comin’.” Mazzie is the only disappointment in the ensemble. She manages the musical requirements handily and works hard to make it look as if she’s not miscast as the narcissistic stage star. But though the part must have looked on paper like a natural for a performer who had played Lilli Vanessi, the temperamental actress in Cole Porter’s Kiss Me, Kate, the style is wildly different, and game as she is, Mazzie’s not quite comfortable with it. And it requires a lunatic quality that Mazzie simply doesn’t have – the quality that the late Madeline Kahn might have given it, or that Kristin Chenoweth could now. Or, of course, Dianne Wiest, who played Helen in the movie. When Mazzie reads Helen’s trademark line, “Don’t speak,” she tries to underplay it so that we won’t immediately think of Wiest’s inimitable way with it. But what she needs is some madness of her own to replace Wiest’s.

Vincent Pastore with director Susan Stroman (Photo by Bruce Glikas)
The real star of Bullets Over Broadway, though, is Susan Stroman, and her work – both in the mechanics of moving the show from one scene to the other (the stagecraft is so witty it often makes you laugh out loud) and especially in the choreography – is remarkable. There are twenty-one songs, but for once the volume doesn’t seem excessive, as if does in A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder and The Bridges of Madison County and as it did in Nice Work If You Can Get It. That’s because Stroman’s choreography is so varied and inventive that you can hardly wait to see what she does each time out. (There’s another reason, too: Glen Kelly has appended clever new verses to some of the tunes to match the dramatic situations, and we want to hear what else he’s got up his sleeve.) Stroman relies on two mini-choruses, the gangsters, who back Cordero on “’Tain’t Nobody’s Biz-ness If I Do” and “There’ll Be Some Changes Made,” and the flapper showgirls. The gangster numbers are mock-balletic and inevitably take us back to “Luck Be a Lady” in Guys and Dolls, though at one point Stroman slips in an allusion to, of all things, the famous 1926 Meyerhold production of Gogol’s The Government Inspector. The showgirls pop up all over the place – as Pullman car porters in the first-act finale, “Runnin’ Wild,” where the cast and crew are packing up for the Boston tryout, and during the kinetic climax, the New York opening night, as sculptures in the interior design of the Broadway house. That’s a stroke of genius. Bullets Over Broadway is one of the best directed musicals I’ve ever seen.

Casey Nicholaw’s production of The Most Happy Fella for Encores!, which played for a long weekend in early April, gave Frank Loesser’s big-backed 1956 musical, with its warm, melodic score and its balance of romantic comedy and romantic melodrama (derived from Sidney Howard’s hit Depression-era play They Knew What They Wanted), its due. The voices were sweet and robust, the dance numbers (choreographed by Nicholaw) muscular and impressive – especially “Big D,” but also the ones that fanned out of the trio “Abbondanza” and the quartet “Standing on the Corner.” Shuler Hensley found exactly the right mix of clownish awkwardness and full-heartedness for the role of Tony, the Sicilian Napa Valley vineyard owner who sends the photo of his studly foreman to attract a mail-order bride, a San Francisco waitress he spots in a hash joint and falls for – and whom he calls his “Rosabella.” Laura Benanti, one of my favorite musical-theatre stars, played the waitress and was generally as good as might be expected, though when she shifted into operetta mode on her big ballads, “Somebody Somewhere” and “Warm All Over” and (with Hensley) “My Heart Is So Full of You,” she tended to go creamy and bland, like a Disney cartoon heroine. As Joe the foreman, Cheyenne Jackson crooned charmingly, though if you knew the original Broadway cast album he wasn’t likely to alienate your affection for Art Lund, and he’s not a good enough actor to bring much shading to the character (just as he didn’t bring much to the part of Woody in the revival of Finian’s Rainbow a few years back). The fine supporting cast featured Heidi Biickenstaff, whom I hadn’t seen before, as Rosabella’s hard-boiled pal Cleo; Jay Armstrong Johnson as her fellow Texan beau Herman (“Big D” is their irresistible meet-cute duet), Bradley Dean, Zachary James and Brian Cali as the Italians in Tony’s employ (they sing “Abbondanza”); and cabaret singer Jessica Molaskey, who did her damnedest to lighten the unpleasant role of Tony’s stick-in-the-mud sister Marie. Rob Berman, as always, directed the music and conducted the marvelous thirty-eight-piece orchestra that is one of the reasons audiences flock to Encores! shows.

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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