This is a fun show, especially for those who enjoy the frothy-light kind of musical that was popular before the genre was taken seriously by critics. The story was second to the singing, dancing and the laughs, and the composers, even the greatest like Kern and Gershwin, had to accept that.
The cleverest thing about turning Woody Allen’s delightful film into a musical was in recognizing it as the perfect vehicle for that kind of entertainment. This show would have been a Broadway hit in 1929, the year it was set. And in Susan Stroman, we have the perfect match of director-choeographer and material. The American musical theatre is in her DNA, and she doesn’t hold back. She gets her actors to demonstrate spectacular performance skills in dance, song and comic gesture, and all while staying in character. We can see the enormous respect and love she has for the old-style Broadway “shtick” of the past, especially in the witty choreography for the “Let’s Misbehave” duet, a highlight.
The one caveat I have – and it’s a major one – may only bother those who love the film, as I do. Part of Woody Allen’s genius is to know, even when writing a film, precisely what qualities in an actor will best serve the story. Mostly, he wants to show how a real human being will credibly behave in certain situations, and that this will make us laugh. Chazz Palminteri was so perfect as Cheech because Allen used this fine actor’s voice and facial gestures to show how even an uncultured, violent gangster could start to think of himself as a serious artist, to riotous consequences. Palminteri was funny because his passion and integrity were shown to be genuine, while the faux-artist, the playwright played by John Cusack, was more than willing to “sell out” for success.
These are the two main roles in the story, and it’s a big order to find two professional actors who can portray them, night after night, and sing and dance too! To be brief, Stroman hit the jackpot, big time, with Zach Braff as the playwright. But the talented Nick Cordero, as Cheech, was a letdown. In the film, Cheech progressed from mere annoyance at Olive’s incompetence to contempt and, finally, to uncontrollable rage, as if she was trying to destroy his newly recognized destiny as a great artist. It wasn’t only that she was so bad, but her total indifference to his pain was a personal assault, and demanded the ultimate response. Palminteri was hilarious, and a total delight. But Cordero started as merely annoyed, which was okay, but then pretty much stayed there. We never got to witness the growth of this delusion in Cheech. Because Cordero, and Stroman, failed to drive this home, the laughs just didn’t come.