The last times Woody Allen wrote plays for Broadway, his single drama suggested he hadn't seen one since middle-period Arthur Miller and his comedies were a tired throwback to Neil Simon. But with "Bullets Over Broadway," his first Broadway musical, Allen has created an old-fashioned, madcap lark of a show that seems precisely where it belongs.
Director-choreographer Susan Stroman is back in idea-crazy form in Allen's adaptation of his 1994 backstage-Broadway movie about gangsters and tootsies and self-serious thespians in the '20s. The show takes a while to hit its stride, feeling competent but mechanical at first, as if the job could only get done if everyone bellows and hard-sells the lamest jokes.
But once inspiration strikes -- and it eventually does -- the smartly cast, good-looking production relaxes into the confidence of its own gleeful, high-gloss ridiculousness. Period songs have been cleverly arranged and folded into the action with some new lyrics, by Glen Kelly. Santo Loquasto's gorgeous sets are both cinematic and subtly comic.
Zach Braff makes his charming Broadway debut as the febrile idealistic playwright, a character with the rhythm of Woody-speak and some of the neurotic energy of Matthew Broderick. Marin Mazzie, playing diva Helen Sinclair, cleverly avoids Dianne Wiest's priceless portrayal in the movie by making the character mouthy, sophisticated and zany. Imagine Norma Desmond with exquisite taste (thanks to William Ivey Long's luscious, witty costumes). Instead of Wiest's delicately iconic "don't speak" speech, Mazzie's Helen actually gags the amorous playwright with her hand.
Heléne Yorke finds a fresh, eccentric, vulgar truth as Olive, the would-be actress whose mob guy (Vincent Pastore, a bit uneasy but beloved since Big Pussy on "The Sopranos") buys a play for her. As actors backstage, Karen Ziemba balances goofiness and virtuosity, while Brooks Ashmanskas expands lovably as the leading man with the eating disorder.
But, really, the actor who galvanizes is Nick Cordero in a breakthrough performance as Cheech, the thug who discovers his writing talents while baby-sitting Olive. Cordero is quietly hilarious, crooning "Up a Lazy River" in a roadster as he drives victims to the Gowanus Canal. When he and his fellow gangsters tap to " 'Tain't Nobody's Biz-ness If I Do," Stroman's strapping, inventive choreography makes them the most appealing Broadway crooks since "Guys and Dolls."
Twenty years ago, Allen's movie asked whether "everything can be forgiven if you produce great art." There may be no answer, seriously, but the asking is surrounded by fun.
WHAT "Bullets Over Broadway"
WHERE St. James Theatre, 246 W. 44th St.
INFO $52-$147; 212-239-6200; bulletsoverbroadway.com
BOTTOM LINE Old-fashioned lark of a show