When in New York, dodge the musical ‘Bullets Over Broadway’

The cardinal sin in adapting a Woody Allen film comedy for the stage is forcing the funny. So the creators of “Bullets Over Broadway: The Musical,” the sledgehammering act of period-tune-driven desperation that opened recently at the St. James Theatre, have a whole lot to answer for.

The sinners include Allen himself, who has repurposed the script he and Douglas McGrath wrote for the 1994 film farce, about mobsters trampling the flower beds of the performing arts, and Susan Stroman, the Tony-winning director-choreographer (“The Producers”) who amps up the material in uncomfortably vulgar fashion. Except for the heretofore unheralded Nick Cordero, who plays Cheech, the goodfella with the soul of Euripides, no one emerges with a feather in their fedora. Not the hard-working Zach Braff, mugging his way through the ill-fitting role of hand-wringing nebbish; not the cartoonish Helene Yorke, overplaying the stock-variety floozy; not even the musical veteran Marin Mazzie, in a scenery-chewing turn as an operatically needy stage diva, portrayed in the movie with a divine patina of eccentricity by Dianne Wiest.

Competent versions of jazz standards and novelty songs from the 1920s and ’30s — “Up a Lazy River,” “Gee Baby, Ain’t I Good to You,” “I’m Sitting on Top of the World” — make up the “Bullets” score. Only one, however, a rendition of the 1921 “There’ll Be Some Changes Made,” sung and danced by Cordero and a chorus of hit men, has any propulsive effect on this loud yet leaden affair. The more curious head-scratchers include the painful, one-joke “Hot Dog Song” and the peculiar selection of the evening’s sign-off number, “Yes, We Have No Bananas.”

Given the endless supply of movie titles being yanked out of catalogues and pasted onto theater marquees these days, “Bullets Over Broadway” would seem to have been a reasonable candidate for show-tune processing. Set designer Santo Loquasto and especially costume designer William Ivey Long find abundant inspiration in the architecture and fashion of 1920-something New York: The production looks luxuriously turned out.

Conversely, a style-less grotesqueness infects many of the performances, a surfeit of brass and hamminess not apparent in the film, which like the musical tells the story of hapless playwright David Shayne, played in the movie by John Cusack and here by Braff. In the manner of other fine, Allen-esque clashes of culture, a mob guy (“Sopranos” star Vincent Pastore) bankrolls a play for his talentless mistress (Yorke’s Olive). She introduces her own brand of chaos into the snooty, self-dramatizing world of Broadway, where David, via Cheech, learns the cruel lesson that innate writing talent is not always bestowed on the most deserving.

Stroman and Allen seem to have concluded that exaggeration is the key to making his celluloid characters live and breathe. As a result, most of them have been turned into clowns, alien to the more affectionate comic portraiture in his movies. Karen Ziemba, as an actress obsessed with her dog, and Brooks Ashmanskas, playing an actor obsessed with his next meal, for example, come across as conveyors of a single joke, repeated over and over and over. The unfortunate outcome of all this is a show that, contrary to the romantic musical themes of the era in which it’s set, remains unembraceable.

“Bullets Over Broadway: The Musical,” by Woody Allen, is based on the screenplay by Allen and Douglas McGrath. Directed and choreographed by Susan Stroman. (c) The Washington Post 2014