Whatever you make of Woody Allen these days, and whatever you feel about the puffing-up process that swells a likable film into three hours of Broadway razzle-dazzle, let me suggest this: Of all screen-to-stage adaptations since The Producers, Bullets Over Broadway is, artistically speaking, the shrewdest choice, the one that has the greatest chance of honoring its source material and not leaving audiences just sitting there waiting for their favorite bits. The very idea of a Young Frankenstein musical kills the best joke in Young Frankenstein — the surprise musical number — and the greatest-hits nostalgia of Spamalot revealed just how daring and unique the original was: Broadway sanded the edges off, made sure the laughs were for everybody, and actually cheapened the ending of a movie the show wasn’t even based on: The Life of Brian, whose cheery crucifixion sing-along, “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life,” is now a decontextualized show tune rather than a singular achievement in comic blasphemy.
Not so with Bullets Over Broadway. The show, now playing at the St. James Theatre, is strenuously entertaining in a way no Allen film has been since Love & Death — it won’t let you go a minute without chucking showgirls and hot jazz-age hits at you. It often works, though, especially because, like the movie, it is anchored by superlative comic performances by its leading ladies. While watching I felt the freeze-headache joy I’ve only experienced at Broadway shows, moments where I smiled so much my face hurt despite wincing, a little, at the overkill.
Allen’s original Bullets (from 1994) is a peculiarly staid comedy, one that invites contemplation of the moral dilemmas the script adeptly pairs up with its farce — but not one so fresh and memorable that show tunes can wreck it. Despite its caricatures of gangland Italians and the bohemian Village, it’s shot in the distanced, observational mode of his dramas, even its defiantly unfunny execution scenes. The actors turn up, run the scene straight through, and Allen’s camera smoothly, slowly pursues them about the set, sometimes not catching their faces as they speak key lines. In that, his lens is a little like our eyes at a play: We catch as much as we can. Allen’s musical mines these scenes for their jokes, and he mints some fresh ones, too, a good number of them keepers, but rather than speak them in the pitch of naturalistic conversation, the actors here make sure we’re looking, and then they bat the gags out like beach balls at the audience. That’s not bad, necessarily, and it’s inarguable that it’s funnier — nobody’s face will hurt watching the original Bullets at Lincoln Center on Monday, when Susan Stroman, indefatigable director and choreographer of the new show, speaks after the film about the adaptation process. (If you’ve seen the show, you will notice that songs on the radio in the original get sung at the same moments onstage.)
One question worth asking: Why is it that the key murder brings the house down at the St. James, almost as much as the stellar dirty hotdog song? Is this by design, or one of those surprises that hit once the show found an audience, a consequence of whipping a modest, ethics-minded comedy into a laugh riot? In the next scene, one of the many that prove more thoughtful and affecting than in most event musicals, Zach Braff (in the role of the compromised playwright, originated by John Cusack) playacts a winning breakdown. This isn’t the my-goose-is-cooked panic of Nathan Lane in The Producers; instead, it’s classic Allen: a flailing moral inquiry, a crack-up in the face of the universe’s cruelty. Braff and the writing are potent enough that ghost of the applause of just moments before seems to howl behind him. The show, like the film, frets with the dorm-room bull-session question of whether art is of greater value to the world than any incidental human life, but the show actually digs deeper, implicating us — we clap for the wrong answer. Here’s the rare case where the musical made from the movie maybe should supplant the movie.