“All-star” would perhaps be pushing it a bit, but it looks like this season’s brightest package of twinkle ’n’ shine is Bullets Over Broadway, a Roaring ’20s wonderland chock full of name-brand ensemble players who collectively form a beacon of star power. It’s set to start shining April 10 at the St. James Theatre.
Calling the shots, on the other side of the footlights, is an even more impressive set of names. Woody Allen has adapted for the stage the Oscar-nominated screenplay he and Douglas McGrath concocted 20 years ago—a merry melee of flappers and gangsters, bounced off a theatrical backdrop—and director-choreographer “Stro,” The Producers’ Susan Stroman, keeps the comic chaos in a toe-tapping frenzy.
The musical score is a potpourri of vintage ditties handpicked by these two and by music supervisor and adapter Glen Kelly, who has tweaked some of the public-domain lyrics to fit the characters and the occasion.
Santo Loquasto, who did the film (and most Allen films), reprised the lavish sets, and William Ivey Long is in charge of matching spats with gats and other period duds.
For some reason, this starry sort of showboating is best played when it’s pitched on a theatrical stage—The Mystery of Edwin Drood, The Drowsy Chaperone and Curtains are the most recent cases-in-point—and Bullets is no exception.
It tells the rite-of-passage story of a first-time playwright learning the harsh realities of stage life: the gangland enforcer who knows more about theater than he does, the manipulative fading star out to upgrade her drab supporting role, the mob boss who’ll finance the play if a spot can be found for his ungifted girlfriend.
“It’s a big Broadway musical, the likes of which we haven’t seen for a while—a big, splashy, old-fashioned Broadway musical,” said Marin Mazzie, who plays the aging, desperate actress, Helen Sinclair. “It has all the bells and whistles that you want. And it’s just fun to play.”
For the film, Dianne Wiest swept up almost all of 1994’s supporting actress awards in the Sinclair role, and Ms. Mazzie may well do the same this year if Sinclair’s head doesn’t swell to the starring category. “It’s still a supporting role,” Ms. Mazzie insisted. “I would say that the only really starring role is Zach’s. We all are just the cast of characters who come in to make the journey happen.”
Zach Braff is making his Broadway debut in the role John Cusack played in the movie: David Shayne, the babe in the Broadway woods. It’s the first singing Mr. Braff has done since Stagedoor Manor theater camp. “I didn’t really have the opportunity to sing until we eventually did a musical version of my TV show [Scrubs]. That was the first time a lot of people heard me sing. I said to my representatives, ‘To sing on Broadway would be one of my dreams,’ and, once that became a reality, I started training with a vocal coach and really working and learning how to sing eight shows a week.”
Mr. Braff said he feels like he has a lot in common with his character. He has made his off-Broadway and London debuts as a playwright (of All New People); the second film he has written, directed and starred in (Wish I Was Here) comes out this summer. “I’ve dealt with the struggles he’s dealing with,” he said.
Shayne’s “nonpro” girlfriend, a stranger to the business-of-show originally played by Mary-Louise Parker, is here sung by Betsy Wolfe. “For those who love Broadway belters, she’s our in-house Broadway belter,” said Mr. Braff. “She has two numbers where every hair on your arm will stand up when you hear her hit certain notes.”
As he did in The Drowsy Chaperone, Lenny Wolpe is back playing producer—the Julian Marx part, filmed with the late Jack Warden. “Julian maneuvers and manages much more inventively than the other producer. He’s a much smarter guy.”
But Chaperone wasn’t what got him into Bullets. Mr. Allen and his sister, Letty Aronson, and their co-producer, Julian Schlossberg, caught him in off-Broadway’s Old Jews Telling Jokes. “They said, ‘Just so you know, that had a lot to do with your getting hired for this show,’” Mr. Wolpe said.
Julian Marx’s “good luck actress” (and possible mistress), Eden Brent—Tracey Ullman in the film—is now Karen Ziemba. “Julian has me in all his plays,” Ms. Ziemba beamed. “I’m kinda the den mother of the group. I make people feel good. At the top of the second act, I have a big, rousing company number after we get a new script.”
Except for four numbers done for the TV press—“Running Wild,” “Let’s Misbehave,” “T’aint Nobody’s Business” and “I Found a New Baby”—a tight lid has been kept on the tune list, not that Ms. Ziemba would be thrown by a new musical with old songs: “My second show with ‘Stro,’ Crazy for You, was all Gershwin brothers,” she said.
That genuine zany, Brooks Ashmanskas, has been rewarded with the show’s sleeper role, Warner Purcell, a distinguished British thespian who pigs out unmercifully when under pressure. Jim Broadbent played it with great secrecy and guilt in the film, and Mr. Ashmanskas gamely follows suit. “In a way, I’ve done research for this role all my life,” he said. “He starts off relatively thin, looking good, then, as the pressure of the show builds, he keeps eating and eating and getting bigger and bigger. Then, he gets involved with the mob boss’ girlfriend, and her bodyguard shoos him away, which, of course, makes him panic-stricken even more.”
The roles of the terrible-actress girlfriend and her theater-savvy protector put Jennifer Tilly and Chazz Palminteri up for supporting Oscars, which bodes well for Helene Yorke and Nick Cordero.
“I love playing characters you love to hate or people who are hard to love,” said Ms. Yorke.
Six-foot-five Nick Cordero, last seen off-Broadway as the Toxic Avenger, dances rather than shuffles this time out. It helps, he said, that the songs are familiar. “People can relax into them more than new ones. You have your ears tuned a little more. After a while, you just forget they’re not written for this show.”
Vincent Pastore (Salvatore “Big Pussy” Bonpensiero of The Sopranos) is filling the big shoes of an old friend and sometimes co-star, the late Joe Viterelli, as Nick Valenti, the criminal kingpin who buys a little show for his girlfriend to do. “You know, it’s that James Cagney-Doris Day-Love Me Or Leave Me type thing,” he said, “a nightclub guy trying to give the girl a break.”
Four months in Chicago as “Mister Cellophane” has brought him up to musical speed for this assignment. “I can’t tell you the songs that I sing,” he said. “But I do belt out a couple of numbers. My fan base is going to be happy and entertained to see me do a little song and dance, ya know? I’ve offered to do Phantom of the Opera after this.”