Susan Stroman achieves a level of low vulgarity not encountered even among the non-stop obscenities of “The Book of Mormon” in her staging of the Woody Allen musical
“Rocky” and “Bullets Over Broadway” would seem to have nothing in common, but the vastly different films have now been turned into stage musicals this season, and suddenly they make strange bedfellows, if not legit twins.
The Woody Allen musical, which opened Thursday at the St. James Theatre, possesses the infinitely superior pedigree, the classic 1994 movie send-up of theater egos and pretensions that Allen directed and co-wrote with Douglas McGrath. While Allen has excised some very funny lines from the movie (gone is the one about the two martinis), new jokes about interpretive dance and the Virgin Mary are equally hilarious.
But unlike the writers of this season's brilliant “A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder,” Allen has pulled something of a Sylvester Stallone in his Broadway book-writer debut: His book never really abandons his screenplay sufficiently to reinvent itself for the theater. For most of the evening, some great dance numbers and many old tunes have simply be inserted into this tale of a young writer (Zach Braff) who willingly allows a mobster (Nick Cordero) to rewrite his play, much to the play's improvement.
It's still a great story, but under Susan Stroman's direction, “Bullets” doesn't hit its target until well into act one when Cordero delivers his first rewriting suggestion — and the actors side with the thug over their playwright.
“Rocky,” the musical, has a much less inventive story, and book writers Sylvester Stallone and Thomas Meehan simply replicate the scenes of the movie. But at least they're working with a semi-original score.
“Bullets,” the musical, is loaded down with old ditties that wore out their welcome sometime during the run of “Arthur Godfrey Time” and only vaguely refer to Allen's story. If you want to hear “Up a Lazy River,” “I'm Sitting on Top of the World,” “Runnin’ Wild” and “Yes, We Have No Bananas” one more time (or twice or thrice), then see “Bullets Over Broadway.” But if your show doesn't have Marilyn Monroe singing “Runnin’ Wild,” why bother? (And she's available on Netflix.)
It doesn't help that nearly every tune is delivered with the same upbeat, incessant peppiness, and the female chorus resorts to cutesy, nasal, high-pitched whines. Any current theater composer should see “Bullets Over Broadway” just for the comfort of hearing how the show's lesser-known tunes (“The Hot Dog Song,” etc.) all sound alike; right or wrong, it's a criticism leveled at every other new score on Broadway.
Stroman's work with her principal players and dancers exposes a weird split between male and female: Her choreography for the mobsters is tough and vibrant, and Braff, Cordero and Brooks Ashmanskas (playing the actor whose waistline explodes in rehearsals) are effective facsimiles of their screen counterparts. Since John Cusack, Chazz Palminteri and Jim Broadbent delivered fine comic performances on-screen, their stage doppelgangers deserve kudos. But again, if you want the originals, there's Netflix.
While Stroman's men are men, her women are Kewpie dolls, starting with the female chorus. Granted, those chorines and Olive (the ambitious moll who gets bumped off because she can't act) define the word “doll” in a Frank Loesser sort of way. But does Helene Yorke have to out-screech Jennifer Tilly and provide none of that screen actress's comic, sultry interludes among her many hissy fits?
Even the usually understated Karen Ziemba succumbs to bizarre vocal inflections, robbing her Chihuahua-attached thespian of the sly vulnerability that Tracy Ullman brought to the Eden Brent role. And pity any anyone — in this case, Marin Mazzie — who attempts to bring Dianne Wiest's divine Helen Sinclair back to life eight performances a week. Don't speak? Don't imitate!
“Bullets” on Broadway rarely breaks free of the movie, and fond memories keep taking us back to the original.
Stroman gave us dancing elephant buttocks in “Big Fish” earlier this Broadway season. In “Bullets,” she gives us very large dancing hot dogs, and a vendor selling frankfurters of various lengths and girths. The number achieves a level of low vulgarity not encountered even among the non-stop obscenities of “The Book of Mormon.”