Part of what has always made The Producers work so well is that it works on so many levels. It's a character comedy mixed with political satire and, above all, a sly look at show business. It's the tale of a desperate pair of producers who scheme to make a profit by producing an intentionally tasteless pro-Hitler musical that they think is sure to flop. When the show becomes an unlikely hit, the pair wonder where they went right: "Oh we knew we couldn't lose," they sing, "half the audience were Jews!"
It's all so deliciously low ... but at the Walnut, it's sometimes the wrong kind of low. The main problem here is that director/choreographer Marc Robin doesn't trust the material enough to let it speak for itself. Sophisticated jokes that got big laughs on Broadway (including references to O'Neill and Dostoevsky) are galloped through so quickly that the audience doesn't have a chance to react. Yet puerile new bits added by Robin and his team, including dick jokes and a routine with some raised middle fingers, are milked for all they're worth and then some. (Someone should tell Robin that this is not Mel Brooks' History of the World: Part I - The Musical.) Even if you've never seen the previous versions, you should be able to figure out what's been newly inserted; it's safe to say that Brooks and his book-writing partner Thomas Meehan didn't contribute the jokes about Beyoncé and "Jon & Kate Plus 8."
With his pasted-down hair and a wicked gleam in his eyes, Ben Lipitz bears a resemblance to the original Max Bialystock, Zero Mostel. But Lipitz isn't the force of nature Max should be, and he's not much of a singer either; he half-talks his way through the undemanding melody of "We Can Do It." The energy level picks up whenever his partner Leo Bloom comes onstage; as played by the superb song-and-dance man Ben Dibble, Leo is as winning a loser as there ever was. As Ulla, the team's sexy Swedish secretary, Amy Bodnar certainly looks the partshe's got it, and she flaunts it. Unfortunately, she seems far too conscious of the effect she has on the drooling men around her. A little of the blissful naïveté and elegance that Cady Huffman brought to the role on Broadway would help.
Since Max fails to dominate the proceedings, the more outlandish supporting performances end up filling the breach very well: Jeffrey Coon as the mad Nazi playwright Franz Liebkind, Jeremy Webb as the incompetent director Roger DeBris, and especially Robert McClure as Carmen Ghia, Roger's "common-law assistant." Robins' ensemble never seems to stop moving; his high-energy choreography (complete with some stunning somersaults) keeps things visually interesting at all times.
The changes made to The Producers at the Walnut dampen the show's glow a bit, but you can't keep a good show down. It's not all it should be, but at its best moments, The Producers is outrageous and hilarious.
The Producers - The New Mel Brooks Musical runs through July 19, 2009 at the Walnut Street Theatre, 825 Walnut Street, Philadelphia. Ticket prices range from $10 to $70, and are available by calling the box office at 215-574-3550, online at www.walnutstreettheatre.org or www.ticketmaster.com, or by visiting the box office.
The Producers -
The New Mel Brooks Musical