“Don’t Speak,” commands theater diva Helen Sinclair in “Bullets Over Broadway,” Woody Allen’s 1994 movie set in the roaring twenties with flappers, gangsters, molls and bohemians on the make. It was full of Allen’s comedic shtick, placed in the 1920s, and is a funny, character driven comedy —all of which must have called-out for a musical makeover by Susan Stroman (Tthe Producers”). The 2014 musical snagged six Tony Award Nominations, but Allen should have listened to Helen, because his dialogue cycles and Stroman’s bombastic theatricality is a bumpy vehicle riddled with bullet holes.
Fortunately, Bullets has great choreography by Stroman highlighted by a tap blowout with some leaded syncopation by the gangster chorus . Stroman not only unleashes their rapid fire footwork, but adds back alley barrel rolls and layouts.
But back to the show’s book. Co-written by Allen and Douglas McGraff, the musical contain’s Allen’s signature wit, but clobbers you with a trunk full of sex and fat jokes. The story revolves around struggling playwright David Shayne whose latest play is being bankrolled by a mobster as a vehicle for his talentless girlfriend Olive. Shayne takes the deal, cringingly (“I’m a two-bit whore,” he bellows) for the chance to direct his own script. Things look up with the entrance of his idol Helen Sinclair, a vainglorious star who is coming off of three Broadway flops and is always three drinks away from being Norma Desmond. Add to this a flouncy leading man with a great voice but gains 50 pounds during rehearsals that leads to endless fat jokes.
Olive, who used to be a two-bit whore, then a stripper, proudly announces that she played Lady Macbeth in pasties. She can’t read, act or follow direction. She is the moss of mob boss Nick Valenti, who dispatches his main hitman Cheech to make sure she’s not canoodling with the handsome Shayne.
Turns out Cheech has a talent besides getting rid of the body without a trace. He starts giving Shayne criticism on his play. “People don’t talk like that,” he says. Cheech’s instincts are so on-the-money that Shayne takes his advise and eventually lets him rewrite scenes. Meanwhile, Sinclair seduces Shayne and also tries to manipulate the script to her advantage. All hell breaks loose again at tryouts in Boston.
Oddly, the weakest link almost to the point of complete deflation is Allen’s lugubrious dialogue, with all of these plot points (and more) which limp along to the musical numbers. He needs a Cheech himself! The song segues are as clunky as if they were being deliberate parodies and Allen’s cynical snap is defanged.
Other things make up for the imbalance in this national tour production, under director Jeff Whiting and choreographer Clare Cook, ‘recreating’ Stroman’s original, and they make the most of a strong cast and chorus.
Emma Stratton has a golden toned mezzo, perfect for Helen Sinclair, and it is hard to take your eyes off her pulling her flask out for swigs in fabulous deco-era couture by William Ivey Long. Long also creates wonderful period dance costuming for the chorus line (love those red-beaded Charleston vampers) .
As the annoying Olive, Jemma Jane is such a good Broadway belter and dancer, she gets away with being way over the top with her take-no-prisoners voice. Also great with broad comedy and in great voice is Bradley Allen Zarr, Olive’s portly dressing-room Romeo. Michael Williams is a solid comedic actor with a big voice, his David Shayne is a bit Allenesque, but Williams wisely doesn’t vamp it. As Ellen, his demure girlfriend, who wants to quit Manhattan for Pittsburgh, Hanna Rose DeFlumeri, has a huge heart and voice. Jeff Brooks is the musical hit man too as Cheech, his muscled voice and fleet footwork makes him the not-so-subtle scene-stealer.
Meanwhile, Stroman’s choreography is the fixer in key spots, a buffet of thrilling showdance. The flapper numbers are not just stylized, but full of esprit de corps and danced by the ‘Atta Girls’ chorus line with lusty attack. These chorines slink in and out of the clammy action starting with the opener Tiger Rag, through to their dizzying Charleston rag that burns the floor.
The show’s song standards like ‘Gee, Baby Ain’t I Good To You’, ‘T’Ain’t Nobody’s Business’, ‘ I’m Sitting On Top Of The World’ are well sung and orchestrated, but alas, mostly slumming in this tableaux. One of the exceptions is Ellen and Shayne’s ironic breakup song, “She’s Funny That Way.” But two numbers having to do with hot dogs and bananas need to be dumped on the road before the show hits the next town. Cheech!
BULLETS OVER BROADWAY is on a 40 city tour www.BulletsOverBroadway.com