Writer: Woody Allen
Director and Choreographer: Susan Stroman
Reviewer: Stephen Bates
Some things are so obvious that it is a mystery why they have never happened before. It has always seemed natural that Woody Allen’s lifelong love affair with New York and his passion for the music of the golden age of the 1920s and 30’s would come together to create a Broadway musical and, at long last, here it is. Purists may argue that a real musical needs an original score, but, when a show incorporates standards by Cole Porter, Hoagy Carmichael and a host of others from the same era, who can possibly complain?
The book is adapted from Allen’s screenplay for the film which he made in 1994, during his own golden age. It concerns David Shayne, a struggling young writer (a character clearly identifiable with Allen himself) who, desperate to get his play performed on Broadway, agrees to have the production financed by a gangster; in return, the gangster’s girlfriend Olive, a hooker and a truly awful actress whose only previous stage experience has been in striptease shows, will get a starring rôle. The gangster assigns Cheech, a seemingly brainless thug, to chaperone Ellen, but Cheech becomes so absorbed in the project that he begins to re-write the play and eventually reaches the point where he is prepared to kill or be killed for the sake of his art.
In essence and tone, the show occupies the same territory as Mel Brooks’ The Producers, affectionately satirising the murky links between the art of theatre and the financing of it. Allen delivers a piercingly funny gag in his very distinctive style for every few seconds of dialogue and who better than Susan Stroman (also director of The Producers) to keep it all moving along? Featuring possibly the most overworked chorus line in the recent history of musicals, the whole company, from the lead actors down, join in the singing and dancing.
Zack Braff is a lot more animated than the writer himself might have been in the rôle of the put-upon and bemused David Shayne, but his style of delivery and Allen’s lines are a perfect match. Helene Yorke is a delightful Olive, performing the very risqué The Hot Dog Song to howls of laughter. As Cheech, Nick Cordero is made up to look like a near relative of Frankenstein’s monster and he gets to lead his gang of hoods in the big showstopper, a fabulous tap dance routine to ‘Tain’t Nobody’s Biz-ness If I Do.
Among a top notch cast, other stand-outs are Marin Mazzie as a fading Broadway star who proudly proclaims herself to be “a dipsomaniac, a nymphomaniac and a kleptomaniac” and Brooks Ashmanskas as a leading man with the king of all eating disorders, whose waistline expands almost as we look at him.
The first half, a whirlwind of comedy, music and dance, is at times blissful and the question at the interval is whether it can possibly get any better. The answer is that it can’t. There is still loads more to enjoy, but, as the second half progresses, Braff’s excessive physical clowning, great at first, starts to grate, the running gags run out of steam and Allen’s musical choices go from inspired to, in the final routine, insipid.
Surprisingly, Yes! We Have No Bananas does indeed originate from a Broadway musical, but, by closing his show with it, Allen seems determined that his last gag is to be at the expense of the audience. However, it feels churlish to nitpick over details at the end of an evening packed with so much entertainment. It feels as if Woody Allen has found a home here where he belongs.
Photo: Paul Kolnik | Currently booking to 28th September