Springtime for Mel Brooks
It isn't possible to review The Producers as if one hadn't heard the shrieks of joy emanating from New York at the time of its 2001 Broadway opening. Critics raved about how daring and funny the show was; some proclaimed it had single-handedly revived the musical. The Producers eventually won twelve Tony awards.
When we in Denver hear such things and start wishing we could see the show in question, we have to factor in the "good enough for the rubes" element. Which usually means that when a much-lauded London or New York production eventually gets here, it comes with a third-rate cast, poor sound and shaky production values. If the choreography was hailed as dazzling and sophisticated in the big city, we can be sure we'll see a ham-handed knockoff. And the direction won't be by the brilliant Sir Whoever, but something created by an out-of-work cruise-line entertainment director, "based on" Sir Whoever's vision.
But that hasn't happened with The Producers. Denver may not be getting Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick in the lead roles, but we are seeing talented and seasoned professionals. As for the rest of the cast, it's strong from top to bottom. Every chorus girl and boy seems gifted, so that you sometimes find yourself watching, say, the long-legged beauty third from the left, wondering what she can do and wishing she'd get her own moment in the spotlight. The set, with its Day-Glo colors and cool angles, is stimulating and appealing, the lighting perfect, the orchestration tight. And we're seeing Susan Stroman's direction and choreography. So does this mean The Producers lives up to its hype?
Not entirely. This is an entertaining show, polished and highly professional. It passes the evening delightfully -- well, at least up until the last third of the second act, which drags. There's lots of wit -- verbal, visual and musical -- and some of it is startled-laugh-out-loud funny. Still, I don't know why this show caused such ecstatic swooning in New York. You have to wonder about that febrile, insular, excitable culture, so in love with its own hipness. Perhaps The Producers seemed transcendent there because Nathan Lane was such an extraordinary presence on stage. Or perhaps the idea of undermining Hitler by making him funny was still revelatory to New Yorkers, even some 35 years after Mel Brooks first came up with the joke.
As most of us knew before entering the theater, The Producers is about a washed-up Broadway producer by the name of Max Bialystock who gets capital for his ventures by romancing little old ladies; he eventually figures out, with the help of accountant Leopold Bloom (a little nod to James Joyce there?) that a Broadway flop can earn him far more money than a hit. He sets out to find the worst script imaginable and stumbles across Springtime for Hitler. Then he signs on a campy queen to direct and a bunch of talentless actors. The production is a hit.
Although it's long, the first act flies. Lewis J. Stadlen is a funny, brow-furled Bialystock, and Alan Ruck brings to Bloom a mix of neurotic wimpiness and -- as the character gains confidence -- an almost James Stewartish charm. There's a wonderfully conceived scene, in which he deserts his firm for a career in theater, that features accountants trapped in miserable cubicles (there's a hilarious moment when one of them voices a full-throated slave lament) and a flurry of high-stepping showgirls.
Bloom agrees to work with Bialystock. Enter Ulla, a Swedish sex bomb who longs to be a star. She's a flesh-and-blood version of Jessica Rabbit, and Charley Izabella King is a wonder in the role, inhumanly gorgeous, reveling in her hugely exaggerated accent and vamping around in William Ivey Long's amazing costumes, which by turns hug, accentuate, obscure and reveal her flesh. King is clearly a ballet-trained dancer, but since Ulla is a cartoon figure, she's limited to prancing, splits and high kicks. Still, there's something truly wonderful in the way she croons "Ulla likes Bblllllooom," savoring each syllable like a cat lapping up cream.
The high point of the second act is the number Springtime for Hitler. The entire show has built to this moment, and when it comes, it's everything it should be -- from chorines prancing about with huge '30s-Hollywood-style headdresses that feature a beer stein, a pretzel and a sausage, to black-helmeted storm troopers gliding forward in nightmarish rows. Lee Roy Reams does a terrific turn as Hitler. When he first ascends into the light, it's genuinely chilling, reminiscent of the triumphalist spectacles with which Hitler manipulated his people. When he breaks the pose and begins camping around the stage, it's a relief and very funny. Social commentators from Shakespeare to Virginia Woolf to Ray Bradbury have remarked on the ability of comedy to puncture the overblown pretensions of evil and restore balance.
After this extraordinary number, the pleasure of the production drops off. The focus shifts. Now we're supposed to care less about the central joke and more about the relationship between Bialystock and Bloom, but we don't. The song they sing to each other-- "ŒTil Him"-- is neither satiric nor moving; it's just too long.
The Producers often bows to other shows. You get a yearning, Fiddler on the Roof-style violin; moments from A Chorus Line; a rumpety-thump segment from Oliver; a lament from the depths that's reminiscent of Mac the Knife's prison song in The Threepenny Opera. None of the music is memorable, but it's skilled and clever.
In addition to Stadlen, Ruck, Reams and King, there are standout performances from Fred Applegate as the Hitler-loving Franz Liebkind (he has a wonderful number involving wing-swinging caged pigeons), Josh Prince as the over-the-top Carmen Ghia and Jerald Vincent as O'Houllihan.
Final verdict? The Producers is fun. I could imagine recommending it to friends, but I'll have no reason to. Everyone will be lining up for tickets just as they were for The Lion King -- based solely on the buzz from New York.
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