Saturday, April 12, 2014

Broadway Roundup—‘Bullets Over Broadway’ Becomes a Musical; Denzel Stars in ‘Raisin in the Sun’

Bullets Over Broadway
Book by Woody Allen; directed and choreographed by Susan Stroman
Previews began March l1, 2014; opened April 10
St. James Theatre, 246 West 44th Street, New York, NY

A Raisin in the Sun
Written by Lorraine Hansberry; directed by Kenny Leon
Previews began March 8, 2014; closes June 15
Barrymore Theatre, 243 West 47th Street, New York, NY

Braff and Cordero in Bullets Over Broadway (photo: Paul Kolnik)
The gleefully silly Bullets Over Broadway is this season’s lone movie-to-musical adaptation that actually works. Woody Allen’s original 1994 movie mixed pompous theater people, murderous mobsters, hilarious one-liners and even song and dance into a memorable stew of unbridled nonsense that won a Supporting Actress Oscar for Dianne Wiest (her second) as the ultimate theatrical diva.

Set during Prohibition in 1929 New York City, Bullets’ colorful kaleidoscope of giddy cinematic caricatures was set amidst Carlo di Palma’s tangy cinematography, Jeffrey Kurland’s canny costumes and Santo Loquasto’s lustrous sets, making it one of the most visually splendid of Allen’s movies.

And its plot is right up there with Allen’s cleverest short stories like “Retribution” or “The Kugalmass Episode.” Struggling playwright David Shayne finally gets financing for his first Broadway play, but with one condition: he must cast Olive Neal, the talentless girlfriend of the rich mobster bankrolling the show. A neophyte director protecting his own work, David also has to deal with the rest of his cast, especially legendary actress Helen Sinclair, with whom he’s falling in love, as well as Cheech, the henchman keeping an eye on Olive for his boss and who has many ideas about how to improve David’s play.

To make this madcap send-up work onstage, book writer Allen has the perfect collaborator in Susan Stroman, who did double duty choreographing and directing the immortal Contact, and who’s already expert at transforming movies into stage shows, having done the trick with Mel Brooks’ The Producers and Young Frankenstein and more recently with Big Fish. Stroman’s fertile imagination is definitely in its element with the show’s many song-and-dance numbers, all 1920s standards sung by the cast, whether or not the tunes themselves have anything to do with what’s happening onstage (Greg Kelly, who also orchestrated, has penned new lyrics that refer to the plot and characters).

Stroman’s originality is in evidence from the rousing curtain-raiser “Tiger Rag” to the pointless but giddy closing number “Yes, We Have No Bananas.” Stroman adroitly moves from high-kicking chorus girls to a magnificent gangsters’ tap-dance, and her magisterial pacing knows just when to reprise or cut off a number to keep the show’s momentum from faltering. And there are, of course, major assists from Loquasto’s dazzlingly sleight-of-hand sets, William Ivey Long’s flamboyant costumes and Donald Holder’s snazzy lighting.

The cast is also up to snuff. Vincent Pastore is great fun as the gruff mob boss who breaks into growling song, and Nick Cordero gives hilariously comic menace to the artist in hitman’s clothing that is Cheech. Old pros Karen Ziemba and Brooks Ashmanskas provide belly laughs as two delightfully daffy performers in David’s play, with Ziemba going above and beyond for delicious interplay with her beloved pooch Mr. Woofles (played by a stage natural named Trixie). Lenny Wolpe makes a funny teddy bear as Julian Marx, David’s agent, while Betsey Wolfe’s Ellen is a sweetly adorable—and crystalline-voiced—girlfriend for our playwright hero.

As the ultimate bimbo Olive, Helene Yorke shrewdly adopts the same grating voice as Jennifer Tilly in the movie, but does so much more with the character—that she sings and dances simultaneously badly and well helps immeasurably—that she takes Olive to a  higher level. Marin Mazzie, up against memories of Dianne Wiest’s Oscar-winning turn, makes Helen Sinclair her own, as much a comic diva as Wiest but with the added bonus of her own powerhouse singing voice—she even spins that immortal line, “Don’t speak,” in an original way. As David, Zach Braff tries a bit too hard to keep up with the talent around him but settles into an amiably goofy Matthew Broderick groove that fits snugly. But it’s Stroman’s dazzling showmanship that keeps Bullets Over Broadway buoyantly on-target.

Washington and Okonedo in A Raisin in the Sun (photo: Brigitte Lacombe)
 Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun is one of those touchstone plays, like Death of a Salesman or Long Day’s Journey into Night, that feels familiar even for those who haven’t seen it. So another Broadway revival only a decade after an ill-fated staging with Sean “P. Diddy” Combs is unsurprising, especially since a Hollywood superstar wanted to star in it.

Hansberry’s 1959 play about the Youngers, a poor black family in Chicago, still feels fresh and has a rigorous intelligence that blends comedy and tragedy in a pinpoint study of social, economic and political injustice. In his new production, director Kenny Leon catches those qualities for the most part; when his staging occasionally stalls, another potent or prophetic Hansberry line of dialogue propels the play forward.

Much has been made of 59-year-old Denzel Washington playing 35-year-old son Walter Lee Younger: actually, in this production, we are told he’s 40. Although Washington looks younger than his age, if not a man of 35 or 40, he has a youthful bearing that nicely complements the accumulating desperation of a man who feels he’s failing his family. Although Washington’s natural charisma makes him one of the most likeable actors around, his edgy side springs forth onstage, in Fences a few seasons back and now in Raisin.

As Walter Lee’s younger sister, the wonderfully named Beneatha, Anika Noni Rose gives a beautifully modulated portrayal of a young woman finding her own way in a crushingly anti-female and anti-black culture, choosing to study to be a doctor until she discovers her African heritage. Likewise, Sophie Okonedo—a Broadway novice—has a slightly mournful quality as Walter Lee’s harried wife Ruth that serves her in good stead: her lovely, subtle performance is at the heart of Hansberry’s timeless tale.

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