It’s not for a lack of trying. Bullets Over Broadway, the latest screen to stage musicalization to hit the Great White Way, certainly tries. It’s bright, sparkling and loud. The problem is, it still manages to only lad a somewhat mild thud, where many had hoped it would solidly crash its way to victory.
Directed and choreographed by Susan Stroman, who led The Producers to Tony-winning victory, and Big Fish to, well, not that, Bullets, which is based on the screenplay by Woody Allen and Douglas McGrath, attempts to do what the screenplay did, which is charm. Following the Broadway dreams of David Shayne (Zach Braff), an aspiring playwright with an all-too-loyal girlfriend (Betsy Wolfe, underused as the ingénue) who has been waiting for years for the two to get married. After crossing paths with a mobster (Vincent Pastore) who is shackled with an ambitious girlfriend, Olive (Heléne Yorke), David’s dreams begin to come true – but at what cost?
There’s something to be said for the commercialization of Broadway being made fun of – in a Broadway theatre, with a TV star in the leading role, nonetheless. (Braff, of “Scrubs” fame, is making his Broadway debut in this musical.) David longs for artistic achievement and for the grande dame Helen Sinclair (the wonderful Marin Mazzie, camping and vamping wherever she can) to star in his production. Things take a turn for the unexpected when the mobster assassin Cheech begins offering script revisions – and they’re actually good ones. (Cheech is played by Nick Cordero in a star-making performance. Who else could make a six-foot tap-dancing criminal and murderer seem legitimate?)
Rather than hire a team to write original music for the play, Allen and Stroman set the piece to a score of 1920s standards, such as “Let’s Misbehave” and “Tain’t Nobody’s Business If I Do.” This is amusing and it certainly is lovely to hear these songs performed in a live setting, but it does make one wonder about the lack of original scores written for the stage.
Braff has a strong singing voice and is certainly charming in the lovably neurotic role of a struggling artist, while Mazzie is having a great time as Helen Sinclair. Cordero shines as Cheech, while York hams it up as best she can as Olive in a deliberately shrill, nasal performance. Brooks Ashmanskas, a skilled comedic actor, is sadly reduced to a go-to fat-man joke, while the sublimely talented Karen Ziemba barely receives any stage time at all.
While watching Bullets Over Broadway, I frequently had to remind myself that it was a musical comedy. Because, otherwise, I would become upset: Of the three women I was watching onstage, none of them were actual characters. One was a lazily written optimistic sidebar, one was a campy diva and one was an angelic love interest who was taken for granted. And all three were played by women whose talents far exceeded what was being asked of them onstage.
Some of this could be excused by the fact that, simply put, it is musical theatre. But even when reminding myself of that, I had to wonder about the actual effect of seducing a young man with the song, “I Ain’t Gonna Play No Second Fiddle”…