Imagine, if you will, an entirely hypothetical situation in which a small, nebbishy guy—say, Woody Allen—is in a horrible accident and loses all his limbs. But the doctor says he can graft on new ones, and he recommends transplanting the arms and legs of a recently deceased champion body builder. Sounds like a good idea in theory, until you realize that the small frame of the patient can't support his super-charged new body parts.
Such is the case with the super-mega-glitzy Bullets Over Broadway, the Musical, now at Playhouse Square. It's based on the small Woody Allen backstage-in-the-theater-world flick of the same name. And this muscle-flexing effort, originally directed and choreographed by the inimitable Susan Stroman, spares virtually no expense in generating eye candy. The sets are gorgeous! The costuming is lush and witty! But still the show labors to deliver anything close to the kind of hilarity generated by the ultimate backstage musical (also directed by Stroman), The Producers.
It's odd, because the basic storyline is certainly clever. In 1929 New York City, a young and intense playwright, David, sees his career languishing until a gangster named Nick decides to invest in his show, so Nick can give his girl, the talent-challenged Olive, her dream of a part in a real Broadway show. To keep Olive safe, Nick assigns tough-guy Cheech to sit through the rehearsals with her. But Cheech turns out to be a natural script doctor, who is able to make swift and superb revisions to David's lumbering script.
It's a cool concept undone by a couple problems. One is that this touring production's bedazzled and titanic staging is transplanted onto Allen's tidy little speedboat of a story and ultimately capsizes it. Sure, it's good fun to see all the glorious sets and costume changes, and if that's all you're looking for then Bullets will knock you for a loop. But if you're a fan of the Allen sensibility and his trademark low-key, neurotic humor, you'll spend a couple hours trying to find it amidst the sparkly tumult.
Another problem is that the show uses all period music, instead of tunes written specifically for these characters and this situation. With the possible exception of one song—when Cheech sings "Up a Lazy River" as he drives his hit victims to his favorite corpse-dumping site at the Gowanus Canal—the songs are either just plain wrong or a near miss. As a result, this musical jerks to a stop repeatedly as we try to process why this particular character is singing that particular song.
One example of the excess is "The Hot Dog Song." Based on the old and racy vaudeville ditty "I Want a Hot Dog for my Roll" by Butterbeans and Susie, Stroman takes that original highly suggestive tune ("I want it hot/I don't want it cold/I want it so it fit my roll") and beats it to death with staging. First, there's a hot dog vendor who pulls out a short and slender hot dog, then a short fat hot dog, and then finally a fat two-footer. That's followed by the dancing hot dogs that tap and strut as the song continues. All that's missing, phallic symbol-wise, is the Oscar Meyer wienie car bumping up against a scantily-clad chorine with legs akimbo, and a blimp in the shape of a hot dog flying between two bun-shaped clouds.
Come to think of it, that might actually work better, since Bullets never has the go-for-broke renegade energy that makes shows such as Monty Python's Spamalot so hilarious. Instead, it all feels uncomfortably bLoated, like Warner Purcell (a nicely pompous Bradley Allan Zarr), the ravenous actor who eats his way into morbid obesity during the show.
Still, the lead roles are handled with professional efficiency by most, including Jeff Brooks as the soft-spoken, Tommy-gun toting Cheech and Michael Williams as wimpy David. Indeed, the tap dance number "Tain't Nobody's Bizness If I Do," featuring the gangsters led by Brooks, is a verifiable showstopper (in the good way) thanks to Stroman's signature choreography.
But the key role of Olive is given a screechy, nails-on-a-blackboard performance by Jemma Jane. Touring director Jeff Whiting should be held to account for not helping Jane create a rather irritating character with compensating charm and sexiness, a la Judy Holiday in any of her many movies. In the featured role of the prima donna actress and lush Helen Sinclair, Emma Stratton does her best considering her character doesn't just hit the bottle, she swigs lighter fluid (!).
Yes, the excesses abound in Bullets Over Broadway. And another thing: These days, it just ain't as funny as it used to be to see people firing off guns in all directions, even in a comedy. But if you like big production numbers and lots of flash, this show will, um, kill you.