Bullets Over Broadway

by Sergei Burbank · April 20, 2014

Playwrights on New Plays #64 Sergei Burbank shares his thoughts on Bullets Over Broadway playing at the St. James Theatre

In 1920s New York, Gangster Nick Valenti (Vincent Pastore) needs a show that features his chorus girl girlfriend, Olive (Heléne Yorke), as she is convinced she can be a star. Enter David Shayne (Zach Braff), an obscure and idealistic playwright whose new play fits the bill. Unfortunately, Olive can’t act, so Shayne and his agent, Julian (Lenny Wolpe), surround her with veteran performers Warner Purcell and Eden Brent (Brooks Ashmanskas and Karen Ziemba), as well as Broadway legend Helen Sinclair (Marin Mazzie). Shayne then finds himself at the center of a never-ending struggle: with Olive, who wants more lines even though she doesn’t understand the ones she has; with Sinclair, who wants rewrites to her character to cater to her own vanity; and with Cheech (Nick Cordero), a thug sent by Valenti to guard Olive who instead becomes Shayne’s ghostwriter, increasingly perturbed by Olive’s mangling of “his” work. There are romantic shenanigans galore, with affairs blossoming between Olive and Warner and between David and Helen -- to the detriment of David’s relationship with his girlfriend, the long-suffering Ellen (Betsy Wolfe).

That’s the plot, but the plot -- in Woody Allen’s adaptation of his 1994 film -- is really beside the point. The show is a celebration of jazz music and the spectacle of a grand Broadway musical. It rejects at every opportunity the contemporary internal musical embodied, funnily enough, in shows like Next to Normal -- which starred none other than Ms. Mazzie, who absolutely owns her role as the out-of-touch, un-self-aware, lighter-fluid-ingesting Helen Sinclair. To a person the characters state what they want and then seek it out, clambering over one another to get it -- with the exception of Shayne, whose attempts to compromise paint him into an increasingly tiny corner. The humor is gleefully unsubtle, and the musical / dance numbers extravagant: this is a world where characters frequently break into song and dance not because they’re overcome by emotion, but because it’s fun to sing and dance (even if you’re a gun-for-hire for the mob).

Susan Stroman’s choreography evinces this joy: there are many standout moments -- a tap sequence by Cheech and the gangsters deserves honorable mention -- that argue for not seeing the forest for the trees and enjoying the show from moment to moment. But the plot ends about twenty minutes before the show does, and that enthusiasm can only get the production so far (especially when its running time is two and a half hours).

There is, moreover, an interesting overlap between the show-within-the-show and Bullets Over Broadway as a whole: there is definitely an uneven division of labor between the stage veterans (in particular Ashmanskas, Mazzie, and Wolfe), and screen stars -- namely Braff and Pastore. As Shayne, Braff embodies something akin to naturalistic vaudeville: he attempts to make the joke and be in on the joke at the same time -- which is hard to do, as Shayne is supposed to be the joke. Braff can definitely sing, but when paired with a powerhouse like Wolfe, it is clear that we are dealing with performers working at completely different wattage levels. Ashmanskas steals his scenes with an abandon and zeal that is pitch-perfect for the tone of this production, and it is clear that it leans on efforts like this to get past the finish line.

Santo Loquasto’s scenic design is impressive, and an example of the magic that is possible when a show has considerable resources behind it. When given the use of the more gifted performers of the cast, the musical arrangements by Doug Besterman and Andy Einhorn are wonderful, if not particularly memorable.

The element that makes this show worth the trip is the trio of Mazzie, Wolfe, and Yorke: they are dynamic performers who own this show from its very first moment, and are three exhibits of the best of what live theater can offer. Each performer brings the roof down at least once, and each time they are worthy of the eruption.

Fans of the original film will no doubt enjoy a return to this madcap comedy, as will those who love a broad Broadway show. While impeccably assembled, it is an assemblage of ill-fitting -- and probably too many -- pieces. In the end, it is yet another example of what happens to a Broadway show when the names behind it attract lots of money, but there is no one above them powerful enough to say “no.”





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