I recently had the opportunity to attend performances of two new musicals playing in Broadway houses: Woody Allen’s “Bullets Over Broadway” and Robert L. Freedman and Steven Lutvak’s “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder.” And a fine time was had by all.
I don’t think one would necessarily imagine that “Bullets Over Broadway,” a Woody Allen film of long ago, would readily translate to musical comedy, especially without the active participation of a composer to create original music. What Allen has done in collaboration with Douglas McGrath and director/choreographer Susan Stroman is to reimagine the piece with period music, so the entire thing has the appropriate flavor and many of the songs are already certified successes of an earlier time with music by a wide range of composers, culminating in a finale based on “Yes! We Have No Bananas” by Irving Cohn and Frank Silver. The tale is simply told: a struggling young playwright is able to get his script produced by agreeing to cast a mobster’s girlfriend in a leading role so that the mobster will come up with the money. Complications ensue when the mobster assigns a bodyguard to hover over the production to protect his girl and his investment, and the bodyguard, a creative sort, starts making suggestions of script-changes, eventually bullying the author into totally recasting his show along the lines dictated by the bodyguard. Zach Braff is the young play-writer, and he does a fine job, but Nick Cordero, who plays the bodyguard, definitely walks off with the show. Great sets and costumes, lively direction, and certified-success music, although the lack of a single composing team means a certain lack of musical unity to the whole, only somewhat overcome by the common vintage of most of the music. As with much of Woody Allen’s comedy, the humor is situational and amusing but only rarely laugh-out-loud funny. I had a good time.
“A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder” is an Edwardian farce loosely based on an old English film, “Kind Hearts and Coronets.” A young man mourning his recently deceased mother is startled to learn from a strange old lady that his mother was the disinherited daughter of a distinguished royal family, and he is 8th in line to a title and castle. The young man sets out to reduce the barriers through a combination of knocking off people ahead of him in line, endearing himself to strategically placed members of the family, and even marrying one of the women (despite his prior emotional attachment) to another. The music is more functional than memorable, although I found that a second go with the recently released cast-recording, which gave me a better shot at hearing and appreciating the witty lyrics by Freedman, left me with a higher opinion of the score than I had at the end of the performance. The show features a large, enthusiastic and talented cast, with the main focus on Bryce Pinkham as the young social climber and Jefferson Mays playing a dizzying variety of roles, all member of the royal family (male and one female). Mays is spectacular, as always, channeling at times “I Am My Own Wife,” the farce in which his spot as one of the modern’s theater’s leading drag performers was established. Lisa O’Hare and Lauren Worsham are excellent as the women vying for the young man’s affections, and Jane Carr is memorable as the strange old lady who sets the man on his course and later steps in to complete the task. I had an even better time at this show than at the other, not least because the plot is just so much more inventive and entertaining — and fast-moving — that it kept me more closely engaged. The first act of “Bullets” sagged at times, but there was no let-up at “Gentleman’s Guide.”