Mel Brooks may not know how to create a technically proficient musical to current standards, but by God he knows how to give his audiences a good time. Despite a problematic production, The Producers, which opened last night at the St. James Theatre, is by virtue of its sheer chutzpah and joy, the crown jewel of this Broadway season.
It's the type of musical people say they pray for; a gleeful return to the good old days of undemanding musical comedy with laughs, pretty girls, laughs, a couple of catchy songs, laughs, soon to be legendary performances by some of the best talents of the Broadway stage, laughs, and . . . well . . . lots and lots of laughs.
This is one of those rare cases where the whole is indeed much, much greater than the sum of its parts. The book, by Brooks and Thomas Meehan, is at best an uneasy and at times awkward adaptation from the film it's based on. Brooks' songs, while always appropriate to the moment and which may have some of the wittiest lyrics ever written, aren't likely to become standards. Neither Susan Stroman's choreography or direction is anything other than serviceable and workmanlike. And the main designers (scenery by Robin Wagner, costumes by William Ivey Long, and lighting by Peter Kaczorowski) appear to have stayed well within their respective budgets. Even the orchestrations, by Doug Besterman, sound slap-dash and not up to his usual standards.
But, the cast appears to have been touched and inspired by the zany comic genius of Mel Brooks, and with The Producers that may be all that really matters.
Gary Beach, as Roger De Bris the director of the Nazi musical within this musical, is giving an astonishing breakout performance, both hilarious and ultimately the most honest of the evening. Roger Bart, as his common law assistant Carmen Ghia, keeps up with him every step of the way, courageously daring to go completely over the top, to places both flagrant and flamboyant for a laugh. Brad Oscar, as Franz Liebkind author of "Springtime for Hitler," successfully puts across some of the weakest material in the show. Cady Huffman's Ulla both parodies and transcends the stereotype of a Swedish Sex Goddess.
Matthew Broderick, as erstwhile accountant Leo Bloom, wisely under plays his role much of the time, depending on an earnest and slightly stylized delivery for comic effect rather than the excesses frequently employed by the rest of the cast. His is a good, solid, reliable musical comedy performance which provides the necessary contrast and keeps the show marginally in touch with reality.
And then there is Nathan Lane.
Lane's Max Bialystock (producer extraordinary) towers over everything else in The Producers. It's a virtuoso performance, the stuff of which legends are made. Disdaining everything but the grand effect or the overwhelming payoff, Lane lands every last moment throughout the evening, time and time again scoring and quickly moving on. It's nothing less than a terrifyingly majestic performance in the role of a lifetime.
The Producers isn't by any stretch of the imagination the best musical you'll ever see. But, if you miss it, you'll regret it forever.
The Producers Book by Mel Brooks and Thomas Meehan. Music and lyrics by Mel Brooks. Direction and choreography by Susan Stroman. Scenery designed by Robin Wagner. Costumes designed by William Ivey Long. Lighting designed by Peter Kaczorowski. Sound designed by Steve. C. Kennedy. Orchestrations by Doug Besterman. Musical Arrangements and Supervision by Glen Kelly. Starring Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick. Also starring Roger Bart, Gary Beach, Cady Huffman, Brad Oscar.
Theatre: St. James Theatre, 246 West 44th Street between Broadway and 8th Avenue
Audience: Children under 4 are not permitted in the theatre
Running time: 2 hours and 40 minutes, including one 15 minute intermission
Schedule: Tuesday through Saturday 8 PM, Wednesday and Saturday at 2:30 PM, Sunday at 3 PM
Ticket prices: $90, $70, $40, $30 Wednesday Matinee $85, $65, $35, $25
Standing Room: Available only at the Box Office, day of the performance, only if the performance if sold out.
Tickets online: Telecharge
Tickets by phone: Tele-charge, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week - Inside the NY metro area (212) 239-2969 Outside the NY metro area (888) 268-2020
Tickets in person: Box Office hours Monday through Saturday 10 AM to 8 PM, Sunday Noon to 6 PM