NEW YORK: The new musical "Bullets Over Broadway" begins with a Mafia goon firing a machine gun into the theater curtain, spelling out the title of the show. He's also symbolically spelling out the glorious return of Susan Stroman.
The bullets are a staccato punctuation that the award-winning director and choreographer is back to her winning ways after a few stumbles, including this season's uneven "Big Fish."
But at the helm of this thrilling Woody Allen 1994 film adaptation, Stroman has created musical theater bliss, fittingly at the St. James Theatre, the venue where her last megahit, "The Producers," was staged.
"Bullets Over Broadway" opened Thursday and has to have become a Tony Award favorite.
Everything works here: The dances are inspired, the costumes rock, the sets are sharp and the use of slightly tweaked existing classic jazz and blues standards as the soundtrack is inspired. Even the casting, which initially seemed odd, ends up pretty spot-on, with a mixture of newbies and veterans.
The show has had a low-profile arrival for such a busy time, in part no doubt due to allegations of sexual abuse against Allen revived in February by his estranged daughter, Dylan Farrow, and denied by him.
Only two songs from the "Bullets" film soundtrack made the cut, Cole Porter's "Let's Misbehave" and a lesser-known Hoagy Carmichael tune, "Up a Lazy River." The ones added to the musical immediately jump out as songs you'd like to listen to again, even if it's the first time hearing "The Panic Is On," ''I Ain't Gonna Play No Second Fiddle" and "Runnin' Wild."
"Scrubs" star Zach Braff makes his Broadway debut as the nebbishy playwright at the end of the Roaring Twenties who agrees to cast a mobster's gal to get his play financed. The mobster is played by none other than Vincent Pastore, who as a veteran of "The Sopranos" knows his way around a hit. The gal is wonderfully played by Helene Yorke, who seems to have channeled Cyndi Lauper, complete with platinum bob and honking Queens accent.
The playwright - Braff mugs and jokes like a natural - easily falls for his grandiose leading lady, and it's easy to see why: She's played deliciously by Marin Mazzie, an overwrought and aging diva with an agenda. Betsy Wolfe makes the most of her role as the playwright's girlfriend, especially in her sexy duet "I've Found a New Baby."
Nick Cordero is an impressive mob soldier, one who has a flare for the dramatic. Brooks Ashmanskas is simply hysterical as a leading man prone to overeat. Karen Ziemba is the cheerful heart in the story, and Lenny Wolpe is its gentle peacemaker. Even the dog playing Mister Woofles is impressive.
Part of the joy of this show is musical adapter Glen Kelly's tweaking the lyrics to fit the scene and having some songs get reprises sung by the same or a different character, giving them a whole new feel. Hence the playwright sings "I'm Sitting on Top of the World" with glee at the first day of play rehearsal only to have him return to it regularly as a funeral dirge as his hopes get slowly deflated.
But it's Stroman's vision that will keep this cute, brashy ode to Broadway on Broadway for long to come. She has staged a truly deliciously vulgar scene sung to "The Hot Dog Song" that, let's put it bluntly, will not be making the Tony telecast.
She has teamed up with Santo Loquasto's ambitious and lovely set designs to put a snazzy looking real car onstage and yet also make a train out of dancers dressed as red caps in white gloves. When she has mobsters in three-piece suits tap dance to "'Tain't Nobody's Biz-ness If I Do," their masculine movements are a joy. When the play-within-the-musical is staged, the proscenium has real dancers posing like carved statues. It's all been so well thought out and executed, right down to its bouncy chairs and rotating houses. Stroman has the right to sing, as the title of one song goes "Gee Baby, Ain't I Good to You."
When the critical reviews of the fictional play come out at the end of the show, the consensus must be the same about this fun, beautiful musical: "A work of art of the highest caliber."