Here's a textbook example of a "Why?" musical. Why turn this film into a Broadway musical. It's entertaining in parts, albeit a bit frantic. The leads are terrific, particularly Marin Mazzie and Nick Cordero. Zack Braff is charming and sings well, though I felt he was phoning in the performance I saw (Wednesday matinees tend to be the time when performers are most likely to phone in performances). William Ivey Long's costumes are absolutely gorgeous. There are some funny bits, though they seldom have anything to do with the musical numbers. It's a mindlessly entertaining way to spend a Wednesday afternoon, particularly at tdf prices -- I would be much more critical than I am about to be if I spent $137 to see it.
The first problem is the score. Instead of an original score, Allen has compiled a bunch of 1920s pop songs. Now this kind of jukebox musical can work if: 1.) the show is a tribute to a composer or group (e.g..: JERSEY BOYS), or 2) the show uses a bunch of songs in a particularly witty way that either manages to fit into the narrative or manages to self-consciously mock the very idea of a particular song appearing at a particular moment (MAMMA MIA), or 3) the show is a revue with no narrative coherence (AFTER MIDNIGHT). BULLETS OVER BROADWAY doesn't do any of these well. Once in a while a song seems to be appropriate to a character or situation, but usually they just seem pasted on. Why, for instance, should this particular story end with "Yes, We Have No Bananas"? Moreover, most of the songs are the same kind of jazzy "Up" tune. It all gets monotonous after a while.
This may not bother everybody, but why bother to have a live band if it's going to be invisible and be heard only through loud speakers? The arrangements (Doug Besterman) are, as far as I can tell, delightful, but why not let us hear it live? I love the sound of a good pit band and remember the thrill of hearing the overtures to great shows coming from the pit, not from speakers over the stage. I don't mind principals being miked, but why the orchestra? The sound designer has become unnecessarily important in the great scheme of things. This isn't a recording -- it's a live event. If it were a recording, I'd expect it to have better sound than the overloud, boomy sound I heard yesterday. Another peeve: Isn't it possible to make the sound more directional? Zack Braff may have been singing from way over on stage right, but I still heard his voice from overhead center. I thought the technology had improved some since the 1960s.
Now to Susan Stroman. This is her second flop of the 2013-14 season, which must be reducing her marketability somewhat. BIG FISH didn't work because she isn't much interested in narrative and character. She's interested in splashy effects. BULLETS OVER BROADWAY doesn't work because it's a case of overkill. The ensemble numbers are so loud and relentlessly energetic that they become exhausting to the audience. The audience loves Nick Cordero as Cheech, the gangster who turns out to be a born playwright, because he underplays. He draws the audience in. Marin Mazzie also knows the balance between the broadness of her libidinous diva character and drawing the audience to her. The old pros know how to play schtick properly, but in the many big numbers, the chorus just seems frantic.
It's so easy to see why this show doesn't work that it is surprising the producers didm't see it at the first preview or before. Ah, yes, but that's another problem with these shows -- too many producers with no one really in charge. The great producers of the past -- David Merrick, Cy Feuer and Ernest Martin, Hal Prince and associates, Kermit Bloomgarden -- had their share of flops, but there was always someone in charge, someone who really understood theatre at the helm. It's hit and miss now. Woody Allen has made some good moves (and some lemons), but he knows absolutely nothing about making a Broadway musical.
So, pretty to look at, some good performances, some laughs, but a bit of a mess.
BULLETS OVER BROADWAY. August 13, 2014.