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'Bullets Over Broadway': Allen and Stroman Hit the Bull's-Eye

04/11/2014 08:40 am ET | Updated Apr 11, 2014
Brad Barket/Invision/AP

If you liked the movie, you're going to love the musical. Woody Allen and Susan Stroman have transformed Bullets Over Broadway into a hit show (pun intended) that opens with a bang and ends with a bang and has a lot of bangs in between.

This Bullets is an old-fashioned musical complete with live orchestra, a chorus line, machine guns, dancing gangsters (and hot dogs), and a Golden Oldie playlist of flapper-era rag, blues, and jazz that makes the audience want to sing along with the cast.

And a first-rate cast it is, with more than two dozen actors jiving and jitterbugging through Stroman's dazzling direction and choreography, led by a droll Zach Braff as the high-minded playwright and a daunting Nick Cordero as his gun-toting ghost writer. Stellar performances by Helene Yorke, Marin Mazzie, Brooks Ashmanskas, Betsy Wolfe, and Vincent Pastore, among others, add to an evening of mayhem and merriment.

It has been 20 years since the movie of Bullets Over Broadway, which Allen wrote with Douglas McGrath and directed, earned seven Academy Award nominations, including those for Best Screenplay and Best Direction. And two decades have not diminished the biting humor that satirizes the three-ring circus we call Broadway. If anything, Allen has sharpened the skewer on which he roasts the pomposity and hypocrisy that often pass for artistic integrity on the Great White Way.

For those who don't know the movie, Bullets begins one summer evening in 1929 at Nick Valenti's nightclub. Nick is in what Tony Soprano would call "waste management" and he has a lot on his plate. For one thing he's in the midst of a turf war with a rival mob. And his latest squeeze, a chorus girl named Olive Neal, wants to be a real actress and is nagging him to make her a star. "I want to play Lady Macbeth," she fumes, "but not in pasties."

Further downtown, an unproduced playwright named David Shayne is drinking Chianti with his live-in girlfriend Ellen and some friends on the roof of their Greenwich Village walk-up. David is explaining how as a true artist his work is sacrosanct, that he would never sell out, never change even one word of his play just to get it produced.

This fervent declaration is interrupted by a phone call from David's agent with an offer from one Nick Valenti to stage his play. The only catch is that a certain actress named Olive Neal gets a part in it. David agonizes for nearly a full minute before agreeing to take the meeting.

The next hurdle is to persuade the famous actress Helen Sinclair to take the lead in David's play. Helen's career is quite frankly on the skids. She hasn't had a hit show in a "very, very, very - that's three veries - long time," and is now best known for playing drunks and adulteresses and has been reduced to drinking lighter fluid from her flask.

The other wrinkle is that Nick, fully aware that Olive is a hot and sexy number, orders his No. 1 torpedo (that's 1920's lingo for hit man) Cheech to attend all the play's rehearsals to keep an eye on her. When it turns out that David's play is not quite the work of artistic genius he thought it was, it is Cheech who makes some suggestions on how to fix it. By out-of-town tryouts, Cheech is not only slipping pages into David's briefcase like a spy passing top-secret documents, he has notes for some of the actors, especially Olive.

But in Bullets the musical, the story is only half the fun. It is the framework on which Stroman hangs some knockout chorus numbers, starting with a rollicking "Tiger Rag" and including a raunchy "Hot Dog Song" and a show-stopping "Running Wild" with the showgirls dressed as bellhops.

Everybody gets in the act. Even Nick has a turn with "Gee Baby, Ain't I Good to You," later reprised with a ukulele, and Cheech has three spotlight songs with "Up a Lazy River" at the Gowanus Canal, "Tain't Nobody's Biz-ness If I Do" in an alleyway, and "There'll Be Some Changes Made" at a Boston theater.

Braff makes the most of his solo, the old Al Jolson standby "I'm Sitting on Top of the World," and Yorke, who is ditziness personified as Olive, and Ashmanskas deliver a delightful rendition of "Let's Misbehave." Mazzie, as the fading star Helen (the role for which Dianne Wiest won an Oscar in the movie), and Braff have two duets with "There's a Broken Heart for Every Light on Broadway" and "I Ain't Gonna Play No Second Fiddle," and Wolfe, as David's downtown girlfriend Ellen, belts out a rousing "I've Found a New Baby."

Bullets ripples with vintage Allen dialogue, and Braff is an ideal Allen hero, a principled artist whose altruism is tempered by pragmatism. One can almost hear Allen as Braff delivers David's lines. As when David explains to Ellen's frequent hints at wedlock: "Marriage is a very serious decision. Like suicide." Or when he rationalizes the changes in his play: "Life is not perfect. And it's expensive." Or when he finds himself torn between Ellen and Helen: "Is it possible to love two women at the same time? Not when one of them finds out."

If there is a checklist for a Broadway musical hit, it would probably include funny lines, fascinating characters, fabulous dancing and songs you'll hum leaving the theater. With Bullets Over Broadway, Allen and Stroman score on every point.

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