It's Tony season which means mucho theatergoing. Particularly if you've missed everything this year as I have. My first stop after that Estelle Parsons-free trip to The Velocity of Autumn was Woody Allen's Bullets Over Broadway and, if you can believe my luck, I got an understudy again. This time, though, it wasn't a big deal. Though the role was major ("Olive", the gangster's moll and terrible actress) I wasn't familiar with the actress playing her to begin with. And though the 1994 film won three deserved acting nominations this musical comedy's only nominated cast member is Nick Cordero who plays Cheech, the mob henchman who shows unexpected flair for dramaturgy.
Memories of the movie and pros & cons of the stage version after the jump...
Zach Braff takes the John Cusack/Woody surrogate role and works his ass off throughout though this is visible effort considering the ease with which the Broadway regulars around him are showing off, if not always in inspired ways, while they hit their marks.
It would surely be greedy not to mention masochistic to expect to see performances as brilliant as Jennifer Tilly's Oscar-nominated "Olive" and Dianne Weist's Oscar winning star turn as "Helen Sinclair". Most good comedy - even good Woody Allen comedy - never stumbles onto comic performances that ingenious. So I wasn't surprised to find that the female cast is fine but failed to make the roles their own. Marin Mazzie, who has one of Broadway's best voices (and biggest mouths -- she'll gobble you up!) has fun with Helen Sinclair's big number but there's infinitely less nuance in her whole show than Wiest gave in single line readings (it's only one of the greatest performances ever).
Olive fairs better than Helen this time, particularly in an absurd obscene ditty about hot dogs) but even this performance, however capable the understudy was, only reminded me of how transcendent Jennifer Tilly's performance was. Tilly wasn't just amping up her already cartoonish voice for affect, but organically inhabiting it as she pushed it to extremes. She boldly played Olive straight allowing you to laugh like a fool at this dumb terrible actress and not with the actress playing her, completely submerged. The only seams were Olive's own when she was attempting to put on airs.
Charmed. Charmed, Charmed.
Bullets Over Broadway has better luck facing memories of the well-loved movie when it comes to the male roles.
I resisted Cordero at first, possibly because I hate to be controlled by awards buzz and like to draw my own conclusions, but it was futile. He was the musical's MVP in the role that won Chazz Palminterri his Oscar nomination. Cordero initially appears too gruff, stiff and violent (aka too much like a hired hand criminal) to fit neatly into a musical comedy but that fish-out-of-water feel turns out to be perfect for this thug who is suddenly and unhappily thrown into the fussy enclave of THESPIANS when what he really wants is to be playing poker with his boys. This musical iteration even peaks, I'd argue, in his big solo, the perfectly staged and choreographed "T'aint Nobody's Business" in which Cordero shifts back and forth beautifully and organically between his emerging artist interior and thug exterior, this shift is even literalized as he moves in and out of the dance steps; Cordero is both part of his own showstopping number and outside of it physically just at the exact moment when Cheech is becoming more and more invested in the play he's secretly rewriting and more inside of the theater community he doesn't understand while still hanging outside the theater with the gangsters.
I'd give an honorable mention to Brooks Ashmankas who is just hilarious as binge eater Warner Purcell, elevating the part Jim Broadbent played in the movie. Frankly, I'm surprised and disappointed that he wasn't Tony nominated as well.
If all of Bullets Over Broadway were as good as Cordero and Ashmankas, I'd be demanding everyone see it. And in some ways it's an ideal film to move to the stage. It's already about the theater so being stage-bound is just fine, its humor comes primarily from dialogue and character relationships, and the material is already so heightened and farcical that there's no chance whatsoever that it will reject song and dance like a bad organ transplant as some Movies do when Broadway attacks. The material moves with beautiful snazzy ease into its new home. Unfortunately this doesn't insure a happy ending. The show is wildly overproduced, overchoreographed (what's with the pauses for laughter even with the jokes that don't land?), overdesigned (Woody's collaborator Oscar nominee Santa Loquasto was nominated for the sets and though they're super duper gorgeous, I'd argue they're uneccessary since stage plays don't need so many "scene" changes).
It's also inexplicably overlong; the show gets better as it goes along but the ending has more "nope we're still going" fakeouts than a Peter Jackson movie. I kid you not. That's okay, I guess. More time to applaud Cordero and Ashmankas as they take their bows.