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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  NY Theater Reviews

at the St. James


  Ph: Paul Kolnik

Pun intended: Bullets Over Broadway, the new musical at the St. James Theatre, must have seemed on paper to be a sure-fire hit. The winning ingredients all seemed in place: Woody Allen’s fine-tuned comic script (based on his 1994 film of the same name), a love letter of sorts to the wacky world of the theater; the choreographic and directorial contributions of Tony Award winner Susan Stroman, who had transformed another comic film, The Producers, into one of the most celebrated musicals of all time; and a score culled from megahits and obscure gems from the 1920s that would leave audiences humming the melodies while simultaneously tapping their toes.

Well, sad to report (and more puns intended): Bullets only occasionally hits its mark, and too often shoots blanks, leaving theatergoers alternately amused and bewildered. While Bullets isn’t exactly a farce – there aren’t enough slammed doors – it turns out the plot’s comic momentum is constantly stopped by the production’s musical numbers, few of which are really worth the time and effort it takes to perform them.

It doesn’t help, either, that the show’s protagonist, the budding playwright David Shayne (Zach Braff) isn’t someone we really want to root for. He’s initially pretentious and priggish, which isn’t very appealing. Then he quickly loses his entire moral compass. First, he easily compromises his work (bad as it may be) by letting the shockingly street-smart gangster Cheech (Nick Cordero, in a tremendous turn that deserves to be remembered at awards time) take over the playwriting duties. And he doesn’t even reveal that Cheech has bumped off his boss’ girlfriend, the annoyingly screechy wannabe actress Olive Neal (Helene Yorke, initially funny but ultimately too one-note) because her sub-par performance was ruining the play.

Second, Shayne ends up cheating on his sweet-natured girlfriend Ellen (the strong-voiced, adorable Betsy Wolfe) with the show’s alcoholic, egomaniacal star, Helen Sinclair (Marin Mazzie), who’s obviously using him to bolster her part. On film, John Cusack somehow made the character sympathetic, but Braff can’t pull that trick off. In fact, he never gets a consistent hold on the character. Sometimes, he seems just to be doing a bad Woody Allen impersonation, hoping we’ll laugh. We don’t.

Meanwhile, the show’s many supporting characters are mostly reduced to one to two dimensions. Even Helen (a character that earned Dianne Wiest an Academy Award) is now all oversized vanity, although the ultra-glamorous Mazzie has so much presence that you actually miss her when she’s not onstage, and her glorious singing voice is used to fine effect in numbers like “They Go Wild, Simply Wild, Over Me” and “I Ain’t Gonna Play No Second Fiddle.” Brooks Ashmankas is undeniably hilarious as the overeating male star Warner Purcell, but that’s all he does – play with his food. Vincent Pastore is effective as head gangster Nick Valenti, even if it feels like he shuttled straight over from the set of The Sopranos. And the fabulous Karen Ziemba is sadly underused as the silly, dog-loving Eden Brent.

In fact, why cast Ziemba at all if you can’t give her a huge number of her own? There are so many moments when it feels as if Stroman was stopped by unseen forces from pulling out the stops she’s capable of. Indeed, “T’Aint Nobody’s Biz-ness If I Do” (performed by Cordero and some very talented hoofers) is about the only number that really showcases Stroman’s inventiveness and the only one I’d happily watch over and over again.

On the other hand, make me sit through the stupidly salacious “The Hot Dog Song” one more time, and I might have to put a bullet in someone’s head.


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