REVIEW: Bullets Over Broadway, St James Theatre ✭✭✭


Bullets Over Broadway
St James Theatre
12 April 2014
3 Stars

The sight was one of preposterous grandeur. William Ivey Long saw to that. Ridiculously dressed, but very masculine chorus boys, hoofing along to carefully planned Susan Stroman moves and causing ferocious, and unexpected, hilarity. In a number about hot dogs. Dressed as said hot dogs. And with the fabulous Heléne York, as gangster’s girl, Olive, belting out the number in true Broadway fashion.

Yes, as the song goes, we now have bananas. Woody Allen bananas at that. For now playing its premiere season at the St James’ Theatre is Allen’s musical adaptation of his famous film, Bullets Over Broadway, a show that reaches into the archives for its score, Glenn Kelly being responsible for the moulding of old songs to fit the Allen story with new lyrics where necessary.

This is the kind of confection that sparkles best on Broadway and, in Stroman’s hands, every moment here is given lavish attention with the single purpose of amusing and entertaining the audience. And in this it succeeds, often spectacularly well.

No doubt there will be those who prefer the tone and execution of the film. No doubt there will be people who think that gangsters interfering with show folk was a topic better covered in Kiss Me Kate or that lampooning the business of musical theatre was better done in The Producers.

But those people miss the point entirely.

A film can never be reproduced on stage and, frankly, only an idiot would expect that it could be. Theatrical versions of films can work, and do, but only when the theatrical version finds its own, inherently theatrical way, of expressing itself.

Equally there is no reason why successful theatrical works cannot cover similar ground to other successful works. Were it otherwise, for instance, people would condemn Twelfth Night for having similar ideas about gender confusion to As You Like It or condemn Hamlet for being too like Macbeth given both tales concern the aftermath of the murder of a much loved King.

Each theatrical work deserves to be judged on its own terms, for what it is and for what it sets out to be. Stroman’s production of Bullets Over Broadway sets out to amuse and captivate – and it does that in spades. It is way better than, say, Kinky Boots or Nice Work If You Can Get It.

Stroman’s choreography is as vital and thrilling as ever. Her dancers are splendid, beautiful women and handsome men, all gracefully and perfectly executing difficult and complicated routines that sparkle and pulse with pleasure.

Santo Loquasto provides a fabulous set design, which does all sorts of things, cleverly and simply. There is a lot of glitz and glitter on stage, but it disappears when necessary, providing intimate spaces of great charm and warmth (and a good spot for a cold blooded murder or two). The sequence in the train is particularly memorable, as well as the faux proscenium arch theatre, where scantily clad chorus girls stand in for the statues one often sees in beautiful Art Deco theatres.

Ivey Long’s costumes are sensational. Some of them have laughs all of their own. All of them are perfect Twenties outfits but they reek style and craftsmanship.

The show moves along snappily, although some judicious trimming would probably be good, particularly for Act One. But it’s a small quibble. There is never a sense of restlessness or impatience from the audience.

Marin Mazzie is decadence incarnate, and ever so slightly desperate, as the Divalicious Helen Sinclair, the ageing Broadway star desperate to play younger than her age, fond of the odd tipple of paint thinner and willing to bed any man who will help her fulfill her stage desires. She sings up a storm, looks fabulously arch in every sequinned gown and appropriately masticates the scenery to great comic effect. She meets the “Don’t Speak” challenge effortlessly. The stage is ablaze with energy and style when she is there. It’s a terrific, winning performance.

Making his Broadway and musical theatre debut, Zach Braff is in fine, zany form as David Shayne. He might not be the world’s greatest singer, but he knows how to sell a song, and he brings comic zest to the key central role. He makes the most of the comedy as well as being a perfectly respectable romantic lead and hapless fall guy. He is just as good as Matthew Broderick ever was in these sorts of roles.

Nick Cordero is fabulous as the tall, literary genius gangster, Cheech, who secretly fixes Shayne’s script and turns it into a hit. Dangerous, erudite and powerful, he sings marvellously and evokes an almost Runyonesque feel to his portrayal. Just as good, possibly better, is Heléne York’s ditzy, difficult, dying-to-be-a-diva-despite-no-talent Olive, the girlfriend of Mafia boss Nick Valenti (Vincent Pastore). She sings and dances like a goddess and her nasal vocal tones enrich and make funny every line she delivers with breathless skill. She has the funniest stage death in modern musical theatre.

As Ellen, Shayne’s true love interest when he is not distracted by Diva Don’t Speak, Betsy Wolfe is sheer delight. Bursting with sincerity, blessed with a gorgeous voice and absolutely delightful in every way, Wolfe makes light work of the role, ensuring that when her twist comes, it works extremely well.

Less successful are both Karen Ziemba and Brooks Ashmanskas in secondary comic turns. Ziemba’s character, Eden Brent, could be cut without difficulty. The lines and songs she has seem to have been inserted for Ziemba rather than for any real dramatic purpose.

Ashmanskas’ schtick as a perpetually eating actor, who gets larger and larger so that his costumes never fit, is not particularly funny and either needs to be trimmed into short, sharp moments of fun or enlarged and given more focus and purpose (although the Americans in the audience did seem to love him, so perhaps there is a “thing” about the business about which non-Americans, or at least I, am unaware). Still, neither Ziemba or Ashmanskas are terrible and neither grind proceedings to a halt.

But where the other leads all benefit from the musical material they are given, both Ziemba and Ashmanskas have characters that might have profited from a bespoke score designed for the story being told. Indeed, if there is any reservation about this show, it is that it does not have a lavish original score. Ziemba’s character could have had a song about her dog, the love of her life, and Ashmanskas’ character, a big show-stopping number about not being able to stop eating. A solid musical hook is what both characters need and are denied.

Not that the score here is not full of good tunes. It is. And great effort has gone to make them feel like they belong together in this piece. The orchestrations are great and the orchestra plays wonderfully.

Bullets Over Broadway provides a visual feast, some delicious light comedy and terrific turns from the main stars. It’s a joyous, bubbly, refreshing night of theatrical fun. There is a lot to love here.

Starting with that incredible Hot Dogs routine.

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