It’s the Roaring Twenties, and all around our fair city the Charleston is being Charlestoned. Wall Street is on an unending encierro and liquor is cheap—if you can get it! But what’s this? A bloody stain on the Great White Way? Behind theater doors, are dastardly deeds afoot? Is that sound you hear the taps of Broadway’s greatest hoofers, or the rat-a-tat-tat of tommy guns?
Bullets Over Broadway has a way of drawing the 1920s right out of you. All the glitz and glamor of the era that made New York “New York” are on full display here, skewed two notches past reality, as they should be. It’s a setting perfectly suited to director Susan Stroman, whose last production—the underwhelming Big Fish—traded breadth for depth; here, though, she proves Boyle’s Law: smaller scope corresponds with increased energy. Stroman clearly relishes the chance to put her spin on Jazz Age dance crazes.
This is Woody Allen’s first foray into musical theater [and the first work he's put out since Dylan Farrow accused him in the Times of sexually abusing her as a child (which he has denied)—Ed.]; based on a movie that is not one of his all-time greats, it still probably boasts his best pure narrative: a clever premise that’s supported but not overrun by its moral implications, and one that’s of course perfect for Broadway. Playwright David Shayne (Zach Braff) has found the funding for his latest production in the form of a notorious gangster whose only attached string is his gun moll Olive, a Lena Lamont-ian ingenue who must be cast in the show and who must be chaperoned by her bodyguard Cheech (Nick Cordero, very funny). Cheech is one of Allen’s best characters, a brute of hidden gifts who challenges David’s belief that an artist need not be held to moral standards if he produces great art.
Braff is appealing in his Broadway debut, and while he has trouble hitting some of his highest notes, that works in his favor: if the actor is outmatched, so is the character. Musical theater has always given its actors license to play to the back row, and that, coupled with a cast of hams playing a cast of hams, creates a whirlwind of personality that blows away David’s outmatched straight man. Consider the balance Marin Mazzie strikes in her first number as diva Helen Sinclair, “They Go Wild, Simply Wild, Over Me,” which is as true about Mazzie as it is about Sinclair’s “it’s the pictures that got small” mentality. This is what a show-stopper looks like.
If that song rings a bell, it’s because the show’s numbers are all repurposed old standards, which is what Allen also did in Everyone Says I Love You. They’re well chosen and seamlessly integrated, unsurprisingly, considering Allen’s famous love of the era. (The only ones that didn’t land for me were actually the ones that brought down the house: the unexpected finale, and Olive’s big number, which doesn’t work narratively because it suggests that just because the material is gauche, she lacks showmanship. Work is work, Mr. Shayne!) This material could be played as very dark, but Stroman keeps things nimble even as she doesn’t avoid the darker implications. Is the work of Shakespeare as valuable as a human life? David is sure of his answer until he stops to consider: what if you’re not Shakespeare?