A gangster appears at the start of “Bullets Over Broadway,” firing an automatic weapon into the curtain and slowly revealing the musical’s title in the brightly lit “bullet holes” he’s just carved out. It’s the first of countless attention-seizing moments in the terrific new screwball thriller from perfectionist duo Susan Stroman and Woody Allen.
Now open at the St. James Theatre, “Bullets Over Broadway” is a zany, old-fashioned spectacle that features the Broadway debut of actor-writer Zach Braff and a marvelous turn from three-time Tony nominee Marin Mazzie as an aging diva with a signature plea: “Don’t speak!”
While not without some curious choices, “Bullets” is certainly the best of the musicals to open on Broadway so far this season, though make note … it’s a new musical with old music.
Based on the screenplay Allen co-wrote with Douglas McGrath for his 1994 film, “Bullets” tells the story of aspiring playwright David Shayne (Braff), who has just arrived on Broadway in 1920s New York. After a string of failures, David is offered the chance to get his next play produced, but there’s a catch: mobster Nick Valenti (Vincent Pastore, of “The Sopranos”) insists on a part for his talentless girlfriend, Olive (Helene Yorke, from TV’s recent “Masters of Sex,” elevating cluelessness to an art form -- and sounding much like Jennifer Tilly, who played Olive in the movie).
The mark of director-choreographer Stroman (“The Producers” et al) is all over the deliciously escapist piece, which boasts showstoppers and glitzy costumes that would be right at home in a vaudeville revue. We see it in the first song, “Tiger Rag,” once, a hit for The Mills Brothers; here, sung by a chorus of tiger-tailed “Atta-Girls” at Nick’s nightclub. And we see it soon after, in the sexually explicit “I Want a Hot Dog for My Roll,” originally performed by the comic duo Butterbeans and Susie, and here performed in unfettered glory by a scene-stealing Yorke.
By now, you’ve deduced the hook -- if it’s an original score you’re looking for, it’s not to be found in “Bullets Over Broadway.” Allen, who has spoken of disliking the “contemporary music sound,” has instead hand-selected most of the vintage Jazz Age songs that crop up in “Bullets,” which get some added lyrics from Glen Kelly. Those songs include “Up a Lazy River,” by Hoagy Carmichael; “Let’s Misbehave,” from Cole Porter; and “Tain’t Nobody’s Biz-ness If I Do,” first recorded by Anna Meyer and The Original Memphis Five.
“Scrubs” star and “Garden State” scribe Braff makes a charming Broadway debut as the playwright intent on sticking to his guns … er, protecting his work. Though he’s the Allen surrogate, Braff’s David is less a neurotic, and more just a fellow who is naive to the ways of business. Braff is very good, even if his performance is overshadowed by the crazier characters. I especially liked his second act duet with girlfriend Ellen (the fine Betsy Wolfe, of “The Last Five Years,” in another of the show’s less-flashy roles).
For the star of their play, David and his producer (the reliable Lenny Wolpe, of “The Drowsy Chaperone”) hope to cast the legendary Helen Sinclair (Mazzie, of “Kiss Me, Kate”), a boozy glamourpuss with shades of Norma Desmond. Mazzie wins our hearts, throwing herself unabashedly into the role that won Dianne Wiest an Oscar, and generating her own spit-takes along the way: “I made it myself,” she says, offering David a drink when they first meet in person: “If it tastes from lighter fluid, it’s because it’s lighter fluid.”
Nick Cordero, an actor who played “The Toxic Avenger” Off-Broadway, and whose last Rialto credit was as a replacement in “Rock of Ages,” is having a breakout moment as mob enforcer Cheech, the tap-dancing thug who has a thing or two to teach David about constructing a drama (for those of you keeping score at home, that’s “the Chazz Palminteri role”). His “Nobody’s Biz-ness” is yet another showstopper.
Equally appealing is Pastore, better known as Salvatore “Big Pussy” Bonpensiero, as the mobster who turns out to be a swell-song-and-dance man -- the actor last performed on Broadway as Amos Hart in “Chicago,” nearly two decades ago.
Brooks Ashmanskas chews scenery in the best possible way as Warner Purcell, the male lead in David’s developing play. In fact, Ashmanskas chews on everything, making googly eyes at drumsticks and danishes as pressure builds to make David’s show a hit. As supporting actress Eden Brent, the always-welcome Karen Ziemba (a Tony winner for Stroman’s “Contact”) arrives for rehearsals holding “Mr. Woofles,” an 8-pound Pomeranian with whom Broadway animal wrangler William Berloni has again worked his magic.
The production has a moody look created by designer Santo Loquasto, who has collaborated with Allen on 27 films, and the costumes are classic William Ivey Long. Most of the musical hews close to the movie, but the ending is tweaked. The finale here has the cast together for an elaborate production number done to a familiar and often-covered novelty song -- think Eddie Cantor, by way of Benny Goodman. While oodles of fun, it feels haphazardly tacked on and not much in keeping with the show’s earlier tone.
The weight of expectation hangs over “Bullets.” Stroman was last represented on Broadway with the poorly received “Big Fish,” while Allen has been engaged in another thrust-and-parry with the tabloid press --whatever your feelings about the director, there’s a great discussion in the first act about whether “the artist can be forgiven anything, if he produces great art.” What’s important here is this: Stroman’s brand of showmanship and Allen’s unparalleled wit go together, in the end, just like a hot dog and a roll.
“Bullets Over Broadway,” with an open-ended run at the St. James Theatre, 246 W. 44th St. Tickets: $52-$142. Call Telecharge, 212-239-6200.
Follow Robert Kahn on Twitter@RobertKahn