Bullets Over Broadway is one of Woody Allen’s funniest, most accessible movies. But the stage musical adaptation, using a script by Allen himself, is an awkward mishmash of comedy and music that never congeals. And the touring production now playing at the Academy of Music, while slick, handsome and filled with excellent dance numbers, never fully comes to life.
Allen’s book (based closely on the movie script he co-wrote with Douglas McGrath) is peppered with hilarious lines. Its themes – whether art should be valued above commerce, and even whether it should be valued above human life – are well-constructed and resonant. And it’s stocked with memorable, colorful characters. There’s the hero, David, an eager but naïve playwright; Olive, a strident, no-talent floozy who takes a role in David’s new play at the insistence of her lover (a mob boss who is funding the show); Cheech, Olive’s no-nonsense mobster bodyguard, who turns out to have better instincts as a playwright than David does; and most unforgettable of all, Helen Sinclair, a conceited, over-dramatic Broadway star. (A woman sitting near me used Helen’s catch phrase “Don’t speak!” seconds before Helen said it onstage, proving that Bullets Over Broadway is the kind of movie that people love to watch, re-watch, and quote.)
But instead of having an original score, the stage version employs pop songs of the 1920s (the era in which the show is set) – everything from standards (“Tiger Rag,” “She’s Funny That Way”) to obscurities (“Good Old New York,” “The Panic Is On”). The arrangements by Glen Kelly (with orchestrations by Doug Besterman) are consistently clever, but many of the songs are shoehorned in gracelessly, barely having any connection to the story. Having David excitedly sing “I’m Sitting on Top of the World” at the first rehearsal of his new Broadway play works fine, but having Cheech and a chorus of gangsters sing the genteel “There’ll Be Some Changes Made” to a man they’re threatening to kill is embarrassingly corny (despite some new lyrics by Kelly that deal a bit with the plot). And the big finale, with the cast singing the novelty tune “Yes! We Have No Bananas,” is almost perversely ridiculous and inappropriate for a show where we’ve just seen characters get murdered. As a result, Bullets Over Broadway doesn’t really tell a story through song; instead it tells a story, stops the action to sing and dance, then resumes the story… over and over and over.
(Interestingly, Bullets Over Broadway is the second musical this month on a Philadelphia stage to feature actors singing Cole Porter’s “Let’s Misbehave” – the other was High Society at the Walnut, which finished its run this past Sunday.)
Susan Stroman directed and choreographed the 2014 Broadway production, and her work has been recreated for this national tour by Choreographer Clare Cook and Director Jeff Whiting. The consistently inventive choreography is the best part of Bullets Over Broadway. The highlight is “Tain’t Nobody’s Business If I Do,” a spectacular tap number for the gangsters, which shows off Stroman’s skill at telling a story through dance and building a number dramatically. But Whiting’s direction is meandering, with scenes that drag on and on, sapping much of the humor from Allen’s lines.
Michael Williams is amiable and sincere as David, though he doesn’t really light up the stage. Hannah Rose DeFlumeri, as David’s girlfriend, shows off an impressive voice, belting (and holding) high notes with fervor on “I’ve Found a New Baby.”
As Cheech, Jeff Brooks is tough and taciturn – but he’s so inexpressive that he doesn’t seem engaged with the action, especially during his songs. His singing voice is strong, but it’s too pretty for his rough character. Jemma Jane, playing Olive, relies on the screeching, over-the-top accent that Jennifer Tilly employed so effectively in the movie – but unlike Tilly, she’s more annoying than endearing. Bradley Allan Zarr has a nicely arch style as a pompous actor in David’s play, but the fat suit he wears is unconvincing because his legs are so skinny. As a result, the running gag about his character getting heavier and heavier in every scene doesn’t work.
Emma Stratton brings a robust voice and an engaging presence to the role of Helen Sinclair; she captures the character’s preening egotism perfectly. But Stratton, a 2014 Penn State graduate, is two or three decades too young for the role of an aging diva, and the vitality she brings to the role (especially during a seduction scene) doesn’t fit the character.
This production uses William Ivey Long’s costumes from the original production, which are often stunning, especially a series of sexy outfits for the female dancers. At one point Helen took off her robe to reveal a glamorous black-and-white dress that drew applause from the opening night audience.
The opening night performance had a few technical glitches (the lighting wasn’t always aimed accurately, and the orchestra sometimes drowned out the singers) that are bound to be fixed by later in the run.
Running Time: Two hours and a half hours, including an intermission.
Bullets Over Broadway plays through November 1, 2015 and is presented by Broadway Philadelphia, performing at the Academy of Music – Broad and Locust Streets, in Philadelphia, PA. For tickets, call the box office at (215) 731-3333, or purchase them online.