Bullets Over Broadway
Reviewed by By Bob Verini
Through January 24
My Depression-era dad and his brothers were proud possessors of BB guns, but targets were few and far between in the Bronx at that time, neighborhood cats being off limits and tin cans in particularly high demand.
So they chose to conduct target practice on a whole slew of vintage 78 RPM pop recordings: Bing Crosby, Russ Columbo, Sophie Tucker and other luminaries of the vaudeville and legit stages. (“They suited the purpose,” my father reported dryly, and he confessed to a particular frisson of pleasure when a Rudy Vallee number was tossed in the air.)
It occurs to me that my relatives essentially exercised their Second Amendment rights on the score of Bullets Over Broadway. Woody Allen, noted aficionado of early 20th century jazz and pop, more or less birthed a musical largely by interspersing, throughout the screenplay of his 1994 comedy (co-written by Douglas McGrath), a bunch of his old-time favorites. Even with a cavalcade of endlessly hummable songs — including “T’aint Nobody’s Business If I Do,” “There’ll Be Some Changes Made,” and “Runnin’ Wild” — and the ordinarily foolproof staging and choreography of Susan Stroman, this mingling of a well-liked (but not smash hit) film with tunes of a prewar hit parade couldn’t even eke out five months on Broadway.
Now a non-Equity tour involving some of the original design team has arrived at the Pantages. There are pleasures to be derived from the sheer energy and wit of the dancing, but for my money this mounting amply suggests why Great White Way audiences didn’t embrace the piece.
For those who don’t recall, the story, circa 1929, centers on the efforts of socially-conscious young playwright David Shayne to garner his first Broadway engagement. His play piques the interest of megastar-on-the-skids Helen Sinclair, but the project hinges on the involvement of two local gangsters: the mob boss financing it, who insists on his lamentably under-gifted moll Olive’s being cast in a key role, and the gunsel Cheech, whose unexpected playwriting genius David leans on to generate fantastic rewrites. Problem is, Cheech thinks Olive is ruining “his play.” Cue the tommy guns.
Never mind that in its transformation the entire premise of Bullets Over Broadway goes out the window. Olive stinks as a dramatic actress, but in the way of musicals that want to succeed her interpreter (Jemma Jane) can sing and dance up a storm. So why on earth would sugar daddy Nick Valenti (Michael Corvino) insist she be cast in a psychological drama? Why wouldn’t he finance a splashy revue for her instead? O.K., O.K., so chalk that one up to willing suspension of disbelief or, if you prefer, the decision not to rethink the source material.
Still, you can’t get around the fact that none of the numbers, not a one, moves the plot along. A rendition of “They Go Wild, Simply Wild Over Me” from Helen (Emma Stratton) is just an occasion for boasting, while David’s “I’m Sitting on Top of the World” expresses happiness that his play’s getting produced. And that’s it. No amount of jazzy, Stroman-inspired Terpsichore can disguise the fact that the musical’s engine — its score, the element that’s supposed to take a show into overdrive — shifts into neutral again and again in both acts.
And I say “Stroman-inspired” because her choreography and direction have been “recreated” by Clare Cook and Jeff Whiting respectively. Though I didn’t see the original version, I find it hard to believe that Stroman guided it into the hammy, overblown form it takes at the Pantages. All the punch lines are literally punched; subtlety is pointedly unwelcome. The snippets of David’s Broadway opus are ridiculous, as phony as the “offstage” sequences. I found it impossible to suspend my disbelief that what Cheech was penning was (as the plot demands) turning the Shayne opus into a winner.
Some fans of the movie say they admire this production, but I don’t know: Either their memories are short or their criteria are wholly different from mine — standards I can’t fathom. Where John Cusack’s version of David Shayne is politically committed, earnest and grounded, Williams’ stage incarnation is flighty and fey. Where Jennifer Tilly’s Olive is a tough cookie who stands her ground, Jane is a screeching harpy out-Adelaiding Guys and Dolls’ Miss Adelaide.
Are such comparisons with the 1994 original fair? Well, when the dialogue, action, and stage business stick slavishly to their source, even as many performers seem hell-bent on moving 180 degrees away from their predecessors, then comparisons aren’t just fair but necessary, sez I.
On with them, then.
Dianne Wiest won the Oscar for which Tilly was also nominated, but I can’t imagine any award kudos in store for Jane or for Emma Stratton as Helen Sinclair, who appears to be reprising Sunset Boulevard’s Norma Desmond – or maybe Carol Burnett’s old sendup of Norma Desmond – in a role that cries out for ruthless ambition laced with comically intense sexuality.
I’ll grant you that Jeff Brooks’s dour Cheech satisfyingly stands in for Chazz Palminteri, but Bradley Allen Zarr’s mincing clownish caricature of master thespian Warner Purcell is light years away from Jim Broadbent’s leering creature of appetites. (When Zarr sings “Let’s Misbehave” to Jane, you wonder what carnal misbehavior this blade could possibly get into with the dishy dame.) Rachel Bahler’s Eden Brent is an equally dispiriting substitute for Tracey Ullman given the extraneous ebullience she shoves into every scene (shaking that damn fake dog like a maraca). So indifferent is the staging that I was never sure whether we were supposed to take this stuffed pet as real in yet another suspension of disbelief, or understand Eden as wildly delusional.
Pantages Theater, 6233 Hollywood Boulevard, Hollywood; Tues-Fri 8 p.m.; Sat 2 p.m. and 8 p.m.; Sun 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m.; through Jan. 24. (800) 982-2787; www.HollywoodPantages.com or www.Ticketmaster.com. Running time: 2 hours and 40 minutes with one intermission.