Bullets Over Broadway Needs More Firepower

Jemma Jane (playing Olive Neal) and the cast of the North American tour of Bullets Over Broadway
Jemma Jane (playing Olive Neal) and the cast of the North American tour of Bullets Over Broadway
Photo by Matthew Murphy

The set-up:
Multiple Tony-winning director/choreographer Susan Stroman (The Producers, Show Boat, Crazy For You) should be awarded a Nobel Prize. What she does for Woody Allen's feeble jukebox musical Bullets Over Broadway (2014) is nothing short of miraculous. Granted, she can't save it, but the corpse looks beautiful. It's almost alive.

The execution:
Act I's penultimate production number “Tain't Nobody's Bizness If I Do” – all film noirish with nods to the great Astaire with tap dancing gangsters and rat-tat-tat footwork – is so exceptional and such a phenomenal standout that the dance routine will probably go down in Broadway history as one of the most satisfying ensemble numbers ever. I'm not kidding.

Watching this propulsive number – a master class in shadows, staccato, spiky taps – is like experiencing one of Jerome Robbins' most iconic works for the first time, one of his classics from Fiddler on the Roof, West Side Story, or Peter Pan. Stroman's dance work is just as extraordinary and thrilling. She does for the gangster in Bullets what she did for blue-hairs in The Producers. It's the most alive number in the show, full of wit and quicksilver.

This fabulous sequence smacks you square on. Coming out of nowhere, this dance hits you with such savvy showbiz pizzazz that the remainder of this stupid show dissolves before your eyes. Nothing before or after compares. If ever a show needed a definitive number to be remembered by,
“Bizness” is Bullets' reason to exist.

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However, it seems as if Stroman, gifted as she is, has only one number in her. Boy, could this show use more.

Adapted from Allen's 1994 period movie comedy (which won Diane Wiest an Academy Award for her supporting role as alcoholic theater diva Helen Sinclair), musical Bullets is sub-standard Allen, goosed with lame sex jokes and shameless steals from Frank Loesser, Jo Swerling, and Abe Burrows' classic musical Guys and Dolls – you know, that fanciful place way west of 5th Avenue, sometimes known as Broadway, populated by gun molls, pimps, whiny showgirls, cardsharps, and patsies.

Now it's the Roaring '20s. Principled, idealistic playwright David (Michael Williams, as rubbery and nimble as Ray Bolger) gets his play produced on Broadway when he hires the gangster producer's girlfriend Olive (Jemma Jane). The nice surprise in this retread material is that the moll's bodyguard, Cheech (a true standout, Jeff Brooks), is a better writer than the young idealist. Sent by his boss to watch over sexed-up Olive, Cheech feeds lines and situations to David, becoming in effect the virtual playwright. The big ape has a sensitive soul. Others stereotypes include a temperamental, over-sexed leading lady (Emma Stratton); a leading man who gets fatter each scene (a wonderfully daffy Bradley Allan Zarr), a Method actress before there was a Method (Rachel Bahler), and the harried producer (Rick Grossman). To keep scenes moving and give the audience eye candy, there are showgirls galore sporting glorious gams and come-hither looks. They preen, strut, and grind with perfection. They have just as much to do in this show as anybody else, and at least they look lip-smacking good. Instead of an original score, which you might think this A-list show would warrant, the songs are a grab bag of '20s Hit Parade (“Tiger Rag;” “Runnin' Wild;” “You Rascal You”) with fragrant oddities like the naughty “The Hot Dog Song” – played full-out in all its smuttiness as if we couldn't possibly understand what's being implied. In this show the audience is constantly talked down to.

The hermetically sealed world of Broadway gets its inevitable Allen-esque slap down; it's just not as bitchy or witty or classy a world as depicted in All About Eve – or Guys and Dolls. Whatever enjoyment is to be found in Bullets is entirely due to Stroman's strong, fluid work. I hesitate to say classy, except for the above-mentioned “Bizness,” because most of her dance movement derives from bump-and-grind Fosse (whose faux sexy look is aging quicker than anyone ever imagined). No doubt about it, Stroman's a pro director, but even she can't move this lumbering, paint-by-numbers farce any faster. Transitions between scenes are smooth as a con man's patter. A dialogue scene takes place stage right as two chorines gyrate stage left – distracting, sure, but top-notch filler, exquisitely lighted, beautifully gowned. All is thrillingly glossy, neat and slick. There's nothing in the world like KY-Broadway.

The verdict:
Like the best high school production ever, the touring cast is unceasingly eager to please. I don't blame them. It's not the actors' fault they have to perform such hoary shtick and oversell stale merchandise; blame Allen and Stroman for putting them through this. The product these two old pros pimp is strictly second-rate and they know it. Hey, wrap it in tinsel and mink and who'll care? Razzle dazzle 'em, remember?

Bullets Over Broadway continues through January 2, 2016. Broadway at the Hobby. Hobby Center for the Performing Arts, 800 Bagby. For information, call 800-982-2787 or visit broadwayatthehobbycenter.com. $25 to $100.

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