Bullets Over Broadway, by Woody Allen. Susan Stroman directed. National tour, 2015
Woody Allen wrote and directed the 1994 movie of the same name that spoofed 1920s gangster dramas. In 2014 he worked with choreographer and stage director Susan Stroman and turned his idea into a Broadway tunester.
The result is no Annie Hall. The characters are stereotypes, the story silly, the plot contrived, the songs only casually fit the plot. You don’t care at all who winds up with whom romantically. The writing is less than top-shelf Allen and few of the jokes are memorable.
Yet we couldn’t help laughing at the silliness and applauding the elaborate tap dance routines, stirred, so to speak, with alcohol and Tommy guns. Thus Bullets Over Broadway is a perfect archetype of that period on the Great White Way.
The 1920s were not a golden age for that genre. No stage musical stands out except Show Boat from 1927. None of the 1920s shows had much in the way of story. Socially relevant music dramas didn’t arrive until later. Prohibition-era audiences were content with fluff — and leggy chorus girls.
Bullets Over Broadway has lots of them, plus energetic chorus boys. The best number in the show is a swirling dance at machine-gun speed for gangster hoofers, “Tain’t Nobody’s Bus’ness.”
The plot, such as it is, centers on an idealistic playwright from Pittsburgh who, in order to get his work produced, has to give a featured role to the no-talent mistress of a crime boss. (She says “I want to play Lady Macbeth like I did in Union City. And this time not in pasties.”) Everyone connected with the show travels to Boston for a tryout run, then to New York for the grand opening which provides this divertissement’s finale.
Philadelphia playgoers sometimes ask me how road-show casts compare to those in New York. In this case, I missed the glorious voice of Marin Mazzie from Broadway, but Emma Stratton sang very well and looked glamorous as the nymphomaniac star of the show-within-the-show. All of the large cast were excellent; although lacking famous names, they come from the New York talent pool of accomplished singer-dancers.
Michael Williams was endearing as the playwright David Shayne, with a nice singing voice plus an ability to do back flips. Hannah Rose Deflumeri was sweet as his fiancee, Jemma Jane was hilariously and intentionally screechy as the talentless gangster’s moll, Bradley Allan Zarr was a riot as the overweight Warner, and Jeff Brooks practically stole the show as the mobster with a talent for script-writing, displaying a rich baritone voice and dance mastery too.
The show would have had more impact if Allen, like Mel Brooks, had the ability to write an original score for his own comedy (as in The Producers). But old familiar songs serve as background to many terrific dance numbers.
Musical supervisor Glen Kelly wrote additional lyrics for some of the jazz-age songs, such as “Running Wild,” “Let’s Misbehave” and “I Found A New Baby.” After hearing his renovations to “Up a Lazy River,” I’ll never be able to hear that sweet old song again without laughing.
If you’re feeling a bit depressed, or bored, or upset with world events, a visit to this show will be a perfect remedy.
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