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Live from Broadway: Bullets over Broadway

Betsy Wolfe and Zach Braff in Bullets Over Broadway. Photo: Paul Kolnik
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Lightning, in the theatre as in life, rarely strikes twice. But it doesn’t stop people from trying. In 2001, director/choreographer Susan Stroman had a megahit with a stage musical version of a film comedy, set in the backstage world of the theatre, by one of cinema’s great comedians that opened at the St James Theatre.

That show, of course, was The Producers, based on Mel Brooks’s 1967 film of the same name. And now Stroman has joined forces with another of cinema’s great comic talents Woody Allen for a stage musical version of another film comedy, also set in the backstage world of the theatre – and last night, it also opened it at the St James Theatre.

Talk about inviting comparisons! But Bullets over Broadway isn’t The Producers, though it follows exactly the same trajectory of the behind-the-scenes trials of putting on a show. I saw it a press performance last Saturday matinee – seated two rows behind Ben Brantley of the New York Times — and though done with class and polish, it’s a bit of a shrug of a show.

An ace cast and Stroman’s stylish, effervescent staging can’t disguise the fact that it feels like an empty recycle of a hit film. The best musical adaptations of well-known films add something original to them – usually, a brand-new score. Here, Allen, who has provided the musical’s book based on the screenplay he co-wrote with Douglas McGrath, has merely employed a recycled jukebox of old 20s and 30s songs. That may ground it in authentic atmosphere, but the songs become largely presentational, rather than organic expressions of character.

Nor can the cast do much more than mimic their film predecessors. They’re hugely able, but never equal: even the formidable Marin Mazzie and the funny Brooks Ashmanskas can’t rise above the memories of Dianne Wiest (who won an Oscar for her performance as Helen Sinclair in the film) and Jim Broadbent respectively.

In his review for the New York Times today, Brantley points out a prime difference in the sensibilities of Mel Brooks and Woody Allen that may have led to a fatal mismatch here:

Yet while Mr. Brooks and Mr. Allen share comic roots in borscht-belt humor and early sketch television, their sensibilities are very different. It’s largely a matter of scale. Mr. Brooks yells his one-liners and his visual jokes are billboard size. As both a performer and filmmaker, Mr. Allen is more likely to mutter. His humor may often be as vaudevillian as Mr. Brooks’s — and on occasion, as frantic — but he usually weaves it into the fabric of exasperating, everyday life. On the bipolar spectrum of comedy, he’s the wincing depressive to Mr. Brook’s wide-eyed manic. As a director and choreographer, Ms. Stroman likes it big. (Big and Big Fish you may recall, are the titles of two of her less felicitous ventures.) This makes her a natural ally for Mr. Brooks and a dangerous one for Mr. Allen.

Here, he goes on, “What registered as wistfully absurd on screen has been pushed into grotesqueness. Sex talk that came across with a shrug and a glint resurfaces as a broad neon leer. And the moral ambivalence of its central character feels inappropriately queasy in this heightened, brightened context…. Characters who were deftly drawn cartoons on screen have been turned into gargoyles by a desperately hard-working cast.”

And that more or less nails the problem. It’s simply trying too hard. As Brantley also says,

The experience of watching the film was like being tickled, gently but steadily, into a state of mounting hysteria. From the get-go, the musical version, which stars a credible Zach Braff (doing Mr. Allen) and a misused Marin Mazzie (doing Norma Desmond), feels more like being head-butted by linebackers. Make that linebackers in blinding sequins. Go figure. Actually, do go figure, because the computations might be instructive for those determined to translate screen chemistry into crowd-wowing live theater. Since more than half of this century’s Tony winners for best musical have been based on movies (including last season’s Kinky Boots), you can see why people keep trying.

This one, however, merely feels trying. But it’s not for lack of trying. Lead producer is Letty Aronson – Allen’s sister who has produced many of his films – and the sets are designed by Santo Loquasto, who has collaborated with Allen on some 27 films, including receiving an Oscar nomination for Bullets over Broadway (as well as Zelig and Radio Days). But the theatre is a very different animal, and though Stroman – whose 15th Broadway show as director and/or choreographer this is, for which she has won 12 Tony’s – has ultimately failed to bring it to a life as something else.

For more on US theatre, see Howard Sherman’s regular American Stages column

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