In a line toward the end of the musical “Bullets Over Broadway,” the main character is told, “It’s no crime to be a total mediocrity.” Maybe. At the very least, though, any show so unrelentingly mediocre is a thief of an audience’s time.
“Bullets,” set in 1929, follows pretentious playwright David Shayne as he tries to get his new work on Broadway. He finds a money man in the form of a New York mobster, Nick Valenti. There is, however, a catch. The gangster wants his squeaky, ditzy, no-talent moll Olive Neal to play the lead.
Hilarity is supposed to ensue. It does not. What follows instead is a sort of pastiche: a patchwork of scenes and Damon Runyonesque tropes strung together by slightly reworked versions of popular songs from the Jazz Age.
Written by Woody Allen, “Bullets” is based on Allen’s 1994 film of the same name. The musical version was originally directed and choreographed by Susan Stroman, famed for her work on “The Producers,” another movie-turned-musical about Broadway.
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“The Producers,” however, was a monster hit, and the film version of “Bullets” was a charming success, winning an Academy Award for Dianne Wiest. Somehow, the musical manages to squeeze all the charm from the film, turning already exaggerated characters into little more than cartoons, exposing a wafer-thin, occasionally frustrating plot in the process.
First, the bright spots. Jemma Jane as Olive chewed her scenery with gusto. Emma Stratton was winning and brassy as Helen Sinclair. Jeff Brooks as Cheech brought real presence.
His singing was uninspired, but it was impossible to tell if that was a simple lack of chops or if he had been directed to half-talk his way through the songs. Hannah Rose DeFlumeri as Ellen was a blessed relief, the only character on stage who seemed remotely human.
Theatergoers could also find occasional solace in the production. The scenery was convincing. The costumes were pleasingly gaudy, if occasionally anachronistic. Stroman’s choreography was certainly worthwhile. We got Charleston, ballroom, and Rockettes-like chorus lines. An all-male tap routine near the end of Act 1 was genuinely entertaining.
Nevertheless, this show is thin gruel. But don’t blame the young, non-Equity cast. Blame Allen. The overwhelming sense in “Bullets” is one of lazy condescension, as though Allen didn’t really respect the musical theater format or its audience.
The characters are mostly inauthentic and unlikeable, with traits seemingly tacked on for the sake of adding wackiness at the expense of logic. Like Helen, the aging star. In the film, she drank booze. In the musical, she drinks lighter fluid and paint thinner, apparently for the sole purpose of eliciting spit takes.
Tawdry, schticky sex jokes abound, including a painfully long musical number about hot dogs that has all the subtly of a fourth-grader writing graffiti on a bathroom wall. The story, with an ostensibly happy ending that includes the murder of two main characters, is profoundly pat and unsatisfying.
It may be true, as Helen tells David, that mediocrity is not a criminal act. In the case of this relentlessly average musical, however, it’s still a waste of time.
“Bullets Over Broadway” continues at Starlight Theatre through July 3. See kcstarlight.com for more information and tickets.