As they say in 42nd Street, the words musical comedy are the most glorious in the English language. Well, they don't come any more glorious than Bullets Over Broadway, Woody Allen's new stage adaptation of his 1994 film, now at the St. James Theatre. With top-form direction and choreography by Susan Stroman, a superb cast led by Zach Braff (TV's Scrubs), and a brand-new-sounding score culled from hits of the 1920s, Bullets is musical comedy with a capital M and C — a smart, zany delight from start to finish.
Set in 1929, Bullets tells the story of David Shayne (Braff), who's determined to get his latest drama on Broadway even if he has to adjust his moral compass in a world where morality is nonexistent: the theater. In order to get his play on the rialto, David must cast Olive Neal (Heléne Yorke), the talentless girlfriend of Nick Valenti (Vincent Pastore of The Sopranos), the mobster who is financially backing the piece.
David must contend not only with the volcanic Olive, but also with her bodyguard, Cheech (Nick Cordero), a tough-talking, gunslinging hit man whose own personal investment in the play becomes more than anyone anticipated when he starts doling out dramaturgical advice. And then, of course, there are the eccentric actors: the ego-driven sexpot star Helen Sinclair (Marin Mazzie), the compulsively eating leading man Warner Purcell (Brooks Ashmanskas), and the sweetly naïve Eden Brent (Karen Ziemba), with puppy Mr. Woofles (Trixie) in tow.
Allen hasn't tampered with the formula that earned acclaim for the film version of Bullets, cowritten with Douglas McGrath; in fact, the show's book, credited solely to Allen, follows the screenplay nearly word for word. The plot points are the same, and most if not all of the film's greatest quotes are there, delivered with aplomb and sharp comic timing. Anywhere else this would be detrimental — why see a show when you can just rent the movie? — but Allen has a lot more up his sleeve here than meets the eye. He puts his vast knowledge of '20s-era songs to good use, and that's precisely what elevates Bullets to a higher rung than other jukebox musicals.
Rather than using the work of a single songwriter, Allen and music supervisor Glen Kelly have opted to use tunes by a variety of composers. Sammy Cahn's "'Tain't a Fit Night Out for Man or Beast" becomes a rollicking tap number for Valenti's gunslingers. Hoagy Carmichael and Sidney Arodin's "Up a Lazy River" is ingeniously used every time Cheech makes a "disposal" in the Gowanus Canal. "The Hot Dog Song," an innuendo-laden comedy number for 1930s duo Butterbeans and Susie, is turned into an uproarious production number for Olive, with as many sight gags as there are double entendres in the text. With Kelly's new, story-fitting lyrics and Doug Besterman's orchestrations for a 19-member orchestra, these songs sound like they were written specifically for this show — a remarkable feat considering that each one is eight decades old.
The reliable Broadway names — Ashmanskas, Mazzie, Betsy Wolfe (as David's girlfriend), Lenny Wolpe (as producer Julian Marx), and Ziemba — do typically fine work, while television favorites Braff and Pastore not only hold their own but display surprisingly impressive vocal prowess. The real standouts in the principal company, though, are the lesser-known Cordero and Yorke. As gangster-turned-dramaturg-turned-playwright Cheech, Cordero brings strong dance ability, fiercely dry wit, and a natural menace that comes from being nearly a head taller than everyone else onstage. Yorke, meanwhile, is a scene-stealing force as the impressively untalented Olive, with a gruff Cyndi Lauper accent that is funny every time she opens her mouth. The leggy chorus girls and hunky ensemble boys execute Stroman's tap-heavy choreography with skill and precision.
Backstage musicals are clearly a shining star in Stroman's wheelhouse (see her Tony-winning, record-smashing production of The Producers), and she and her collaborators have gone all out to craft a show that stands up to the very best in that genre. William Ivey Long's costumes are as glitzy as anyone could want, Santo Loquasto accurately reimagines his settings in the film for the theatrical medium, and Donald Holder's lighting gives the show an authentic, period feel. Most important, there's not a single uninteresting moment onstage. The aim of Bullets is to make us laugh, and boy, do we ever.