Given the fanfare with which it entered Los Angeles, any review of The Producers which is not an unmitigated rave runs the risk of appearing to damn it with faint praise. Which is a shame, because the show is good - damn good. It just isn't the sort of thing I'm going to break out the superlatives for.
Mel Brooks's musicalization of his classic movie about two producers who set out to purposely create the worst show in history is great fun. Its play-within-a-play, Springtime For Hitler, goes far beyond the boundaries of anything remotely considered to be good taste and is hilarious simply for the ridiculous depths to which it sinks. But it isn't just Springtime that revels in crudity; the entire musical crosses lines and plays up stereotypes to their comedic zenith. You might be a little ashamed of yourself for laughing at a man who is so gay he prances around the stage, or a group of sex-crazed little old ladies who chase their prey with their walkers, but you will laugh at it nonetheless. Just check your political correctness at the door and surrender to the silliness.
Jason Alexander plays Max Bialystock, the down-on-his-luck producer who decides to follow his string of unintentional flops with a planned one in order to keep the investments for himself. Alexander does not try to duplicate the Tony-award winning performance of Nathan Lane in the role, but his performance is not substantially different from Lane's, either. Alexander's delivery of some of the jokes is different - but no less successful - and he takes a little more time with some of his songs. But, basically, he delivers a solid Bialystock in the tradition of Lane, hitting all the right songs, jokes, periods of frustration, and moments of sheer comic panic. Alexander half-speaks some of his lyrics rather than singing them, and he frequently goes for a lower note than did Lane. At the performance reviewed, he had a few moments of hoarseness, which raised the question of whether he normally sings this way, or if these were voice-preserving techniques he was using to save himself for opening night.
In "We Can Do It," the number in which Bialystock tries to convince reluctant accountant Leo Bloom to go along with his money-making scheme, Alexander makes the set his personal playground, confidently standing on furniture and moving as though he owns the place. Which, in fact, he does - the scene takes place in Bialystock's office. What is notable about this is that Alexander only takes that kind of control over the show when he's in a position where Bialystock would take command. Otherwise, he takes a back seat and allows the rest of the cast to shine.
Martin Short has the makings of a remarkable Leo Bloom, one who is somewhat older than that played by originator Matthew Broderick. Short's musical and comedic work is solidly entertaining, but there are little hints of something wonderfully real in his performance. Bloom has emotional problems and gets hysterical when Bialystock first invades his personal space. But Short gets more than childishly petulant; he gets genuinely terrified. And when Bloom quits his desk job in order to join Bialystock as a producer, Short's Bloom tells off his boss with the genuine take-this-job-and-shove-it-ness of a man who has been working at the same tiny desk for way too long. But these hints at something special are all we get. Short takes the easy way out much too often, frequently rolling on the floor and twice sneaking in his trademark Ed Grimley silly walk for cheap laughs. It's a lost opportunity. His tantalizing snippets of a meaty Bloom prove he's capable of a lot more than rehashing old TV sketches.
Gary Beach reprises his Tony-Award winning role as extremely gay director Roger De Bris. He seems off in the first act (perhaps because Josh Prince is giving him little to work with as his partner, Carmen Ghia), but the second act, when he gets a chance to play Hitler in Springtime, is gold from the moment of his posed entrance. Fred Applegate is delightful as Springtime's author, Franz Liebkind, a man who is as much unapologetic showman as he is unapologetic Nazi. There's something so innocently charming about the way Liebkind tries to sell a showtune, you end up rooting for him no matter how offensive his character. But the best of the supporting players is Angie Schworer, whose Swedish bombshell, Ulla, is just as memorable for her mispronounced words as the sways of her hips.
The Producers is a solidly fun show with performances that hit every possible laugh. While it isn't the musical of the decade, or perhaps even the year, it's certainly the musical of the moment.
Rocco Landesman, Clear Channel Entertainment, The Frankel-Baruch-Viertel-Routh Group, Bob and Harvey Weinstein, Rick Steiner, Robert F.X. Sillerman, Mel Brooks, in Association with James D. Stern/Douglas Meyer present The Producers the new Mel Brooks musical. Book by Mel Brooks and Thomas Meehan. Music and Lyrics by Mel Brooks and by Special Arrangement with StudioCanal. Scenery Designed by Robin Wagner; Costumes Designed by William Ivey Long; Lighting Designed by Peter Kaczorowski; Sound Designed by Steve Canyon Kennedy; Casting by Tara Rubin Casting; Original Casting by Johnson-Liff Associates; Associate Director Steven Zweigbaum; Associate Choreographer Warren Carlyle; Production Stage Manager Rolt Smith; Wigs & Hair Designed by Paul Huntley; Vocal Arrangements by Patrick S. Brady; Orchestrations by Doug Bresterman; Conductor/Musical Director Don York; Music Coordinator John Miller by Patrick S. Brady; Orchestrations by Doug Bresterman; Coductor/Musical Director Don York; Music Coordinator John Miller; General Management Richard Frankel Productions, Laura Green; Production Management Juniper Street Productions; Technical Supervisor David Benken; Tour Press & Marketing TMG The Marketing Group; Associate Producers Frederic H. & Rhoda Mayerson, Beth Williams; Creative Music Supervision and Arrangements by Glen Kelly; Direction and Choreography by Susan Stroman.
Photo: Martin Short, Jason Alexander THE PRODUCERS the new MEL BROOKS musical-Los
Angeles, Photo by Paul Kolnik