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New York City Theater

"Bullets Over Broadway"
St James Theater

Lights! Scenery! Skimpy costumes! Chorus girls! Double entendres! Hummable tunes from years past! It’s “Bullets Over Broadway,” the sleek throwback to shows of yore, a delectably brainless enterprise from the brainy Woody Allen.

Thick with irony, the musical’s Allen stand-in, David Shayne, says, “I will not pander to a commercial Broadway audience,” while the show does just that. “Art above all” becomes just so much hogwash. In this tale of egocentric producers and actors pouring their ambitious guts into a new play by Shayne (an ingratiating Zach Braff), it’s the bitch goddess Success who trumps integrity.

Leave integrity to Shayne whose work, it turns out, is full of pretense and surely headed for the floperoo bin. That is, until Cheech (the show-stealing Nick Cordero) comes along, a gangster prone to wiping out recalcitrant mobsters or even the boss’ girlfriend, Olive Neal (Heléne Yorke, channeling Judy Holliday), whom he dismisses as “a terrible actress.”

And why not? She may be the reason the play gets on in the first place – she’s the price for the boss’ backing – but she’s ruining Cheech’s vested interest. After all, he’s re-written Shayne’s play, making it more authentic, more like how real people talk.

Olive isn’t happy about the changes, but the other actors are, especially vain Helen Sinclair (an effervescent Marin Mazzie) who seduces the playwright for her own purposes. Ditsy Eden Brent (welcome back, Karen Ziemba) is constantly running after her Pomeranian, Mr. Woofles (the peripatetic Trixie), while Warner Purcell (an over-the-top Brooks Ashmanskas), a gourmand who, never having seen an éclair he didn’t covet, gets fatter and fatter.

Mix all this with nightclub acts, a wonderfully risqué bit featuring men dressed as giant hotdogs and a train sequence out of so many other shows. If it sounds by the numbers, if it appears a well-oiled machine, take it for that. Rewards come to those who sit back and devour a glittery physical production.

Only one number really raises the roof. That’s when assorted gangsters sing and dance hell out of “’Tain’t Nobody’s Biz-ness If I Do,” led by Cordero as Cheech. (Did they ever think of making him the protagonist?)

“Nobody’s Biz-ness” dates from the 1920s, as do most of the songs. Some are familiar (“Tiger Rag,” “Up a Lazy River”), others not (“I Ain’t Gonna Play No Second Fiddle”). Decked out with revised lyrics by Glen Kelly, they not only fit, they lend style and authenticity.

Susan Stroman’s joyous choreography matches her witty direction. (How can you resist Olive’s forcing someone to kiss her hand?) Allen’s humor sometimes gets lost in the glitz. But then comes Cheech’s “They taught me how to read and write in school. Before I burned it down.”

Yes, there’s no heart. Yes, the finale seems an after-thought. Yet, after hours of entertainment, why quibble?

--David A. Rosenberg
April 21, 2014

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