BACK STAGE WEST
June 05, 2003
at the Pantages Theatre
Slam-bang hysterics! A showstopper every 20 minutes! More gags than you could shake a shtick at! The rip-roaringest, rootin'-tootin'est megamusical of the season! Sorry, got caught up for a moment in the anxious hyperbole, the over-the-top excitability, of The Producers, Mel Brooks and Thomas Meehan's Tony-winning adaptation of Brooks' 1968 film, which in its new L.A. incarnation comes on like an unabashed time warp, conjuring a whole world of forgotten or half-remembered showbiz tropes as old as vaudeville.
Or older: When washed-up producer Max Bialystock (Jason Alexander) name-drops Ziegfield in his opening number while a chorus of cops, nuns, usherettes, and street people sing a hora-like ode to this erstwhile "King of Broadway," there's an authentic sense of theatre history in play. If Fiddler on the Roof and Rags traced Broadway showmanship back to the shtetl, The Producers mines a lode of Jewish American entertainment traditions so aged they almost feel newly minted. True, there's as much chintz as gold in them hills, but The Producers' unselfconscious reveling--in groaner gags, razzmatazz musical numbers, adolescent sex jokes, wide-load ethnic stereotypes--is its best feature, and at times it's as infectious as it wants to be.
Most times it's just a hard sell, at least in this L.A. production, under original director/choreographer Susan Stroman. Most of the actors are pushing: Alexander, an expert at the slow burn, instead sputters and fumes as Bialystock; he plays the character's self-deluding, glad-handing grandiosity with an irony that tells us such airs don't come naturally. Martin Short fares better, giving the timorous accountant Leo Bloom a Muppet-like innocence and, in his dance numbers, a geeky panache, though his fits and pratfalls feel forced. Angie Schworer's one-note turn as a Swedish Amazon is pure delight for precisely the length of her knockout audition number, less so thereafter. At least Gary Beach--whose performance as a swishy director, Roger De Bris, suggests Jack Buchanan in The Band Wagon--saves his thunder for the show's climactic "Springtime for Hitler," and Fred Applegate, as a dotty neo-Nazi, manages to build a caricature into a character turn.
The book is as flimsy as the movie's script--the farce of deception promised by the first act's setup never escalates--and the lyrics and score, while mostly pedestrian, have the charm of bald simplicity. "I Wanna Be a Producer," "We Can Do It," and "That Face" certainly get right to the point, and musically they have a Broadway-baby obviousness that's mostly endearing; like many of Brooks' movie songs, they sound like fully arranged renditions of the first sing-song idea ("High annnnnnnnXI-ety") that popped into his head and out of his mouth. If "Springtime for Hitler" and "Prisoners of Love" stand out from the score, it's because they showcase Brooks' gift for the dead-on pastiche (they also happen to be the only two songs from the original film).
Stroman matches Brooks gag for gag, first by having showgirls slither from file cabinets in a stuffy accountants' office, then by putting a line of grannies into a walker kick line, and finally in "Springtime for Hitler," in which the entire cast and the designs--William Ivey Long's costumes, Peter Kaczorowski's lighting, and Robin Wagner's sets--rise to a rarefied level of exquisite bad taste. There's nothing else quite like "Springtime," probably thankfully, in Broadway history--this orgy of creepy ebullience that loads sight gags upon ironies, camp upon kitsch--and no way to describe our giddy, shaken reaction to it except to say that nothing that follows (or came before, for that matter) can match it. A deeply outrageous number, it's Brooks at his buoyantly subversive best.
If one can't say the same about the rest of this Producers, it's nevertheless easy to see why it's gone over so well, particularly in New York. Broadway hits these days tend to pummel us into having a good time, and The Producers is no exception; indeed, seldom has a show reminded me so much of the essential violence of showbiz argot (hit, flop, blockbuster, bomb, kill, die). The key difference is that this isn't the through-sung pop bombast of Webber or Boublil-Schonberg; this is the old-school song-and-dance razzle-dazzle, back and bigger than ever. The Producers puts the "broad" back in Broadway, and it's slaying 'em nightly.
"The Producers," presented by Rocco Landesman, et al., at the Pantages Theatre, 6233 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood. Tues.-Wed. 8 p.m., Thurs. 2 & 8 p.m., Fri. 8 p.m., Sat. 2 & 8 p.m., Sun. 2 p.m. May 29-Indefinitely. $25-95. (213) 365-3500.