A More Focused Producers
Also see Richard's review of If You Ever Leave Me ... I'm Going With You!
The Mel Brooks’s musical The Producers has finally come to San Francisco for an 8 week stay before traveling south to Los Angeles. This production of the musical that won a record twelve Tony Awards in 2001 is a more balanced presentation with its stars Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick gone. I find that much attention is now given to some of the supporting players in this good old fashion musical. The musical is fresh, funny and high-spirited and it contains all of the elements of a popular musical, such as dazzling chorus girls, good vaudeville shticks between Max and Bloom, a schmaltzy musical score, glittering production numbers, tap dancing little old ladies with walkers and some very clever mechanical pigeons singing and flapping as backup on one number.
The Producers follows the Mel Brooks movie almost to a "T." It is the story of a down on his luck theatrical producer and seducer of elderly women, Max Bialystock (Lewis J. Stadlen), and his mousy accountant Leo Bloom (Don Stephenson). Together they hatch the ultimate scam to raise more money than they need for a surefire Broadway flop and pocket the difference. The couple find an ex-Nazi who has written a musical and “love letter” to Adolph Hitler. Max and Leo decide this is the perfect musical that will close after the “fourth page.” The opus is called Springtime for Hitler, and surprisingly it is hit (there really is no accounting for the taste of those New Yorkers). How Max raises the money, gets the director and choreographer and what happens to our heroes after the opening makes for a fun production.
The Producers is no bus and truck show and although the sets (by Robin Wagner) may have shrunk a bit, it still has the Broadway look. However, the smaller Ziegfeld set makes those outlandish costumes that the chorus girls wear in the “Springtime for Hitler” number look hysterically in bad taste. We can credit William Ivey Long for the zany and elaborate costumes.
The musical had some sound problems on opening night in the “King of Broadway” number. The sound was blaring and the voices shrill. Also, the Orpheum stage is very large and the introduction of Max Bialystock seems lost among the sound and vastness of the stage. The second scene that takes place in Max’s office is very reminiscent of vaudeville and burlesque skits that I saw in the ’40s and ’50s. Don Stephenson as Bloom starts out playing the role too broadly, and is more Jerry Lewis than Gene Wilder or Mathew Broderick. However, he settles down by the time he does his first big number, “I Wanna Be a Producer.” Stephenson has a better singing voice than Broderick.
It is hard not to compare the other Maxes with Lewis J. Stadlen's portrayal of the down and out producer. Stadlen is a cross between Jackie Gleason and Groucho Marx and he is less campy than Nathan Lane. He is a kinder and gentler Max.
Some of the tour's casting is superior to the original Broadway presentation. Long-legged Angie Schworer playing the bimbo Ulla is brilliant. She comes straight from her role on Broadway where she was lead dancer and the understudy for the original Ulla, Cady Huffman. Ms. Schworer is a better dancer and singer than the Tony winning Huffman. When she sings “When You Got It, Flaunt It”, she brings down the house. Her Swedish accent is comic delight.
Lee Roy Reams, known as the world's oldest chorus boy, is an inspired choice for the role of the flamboyant director Roger DeBris. His entrance, dressed in a drag outfit that looks like the Chrysler Building, is a real scream. Reams, with his eyebrows twitching, gets plenty of laughs. Michael Paternostro steals the show as the extremely fey Carmen Ghia. He flies about the stage, and his wild mannerisms are terrific. Reams and Pasternostro are caricatures of ultimate ostentatious “queens” in the show. They break up the audience with every movement and speech they make. Fred Applegate is probably the best Franz Liebkind that I have seen. He adds emotional layers to the personality of the character. In fact, he looks like he was in the German army, and his rendition of “Haben Sie Gehort Das Deutsche Band” is side-splitting.
There are two scenes that alone make the musical worth seeing. The riotous scene in the living room of Roger DeBris' apartment in the first act is a comic tour de force for all of the characters. Also, the big showy Ziegfeld number “Springtime for Hitler” is zany and brilliant. There is even a little of A Chorus Line thrown in for good measure.
Robin Wagner's sets are first class and they are almost as good as the Broadway production. The choreography of Susan Stroman is still fresh thanks to some very talented dancers. The showgirl chorus with gorgeous legs could play any Las Vegas palace. The large orchestra under the supervision of Glen Kelly is just as good as the Broadway orchestra. This is one of the slickest tours that I have seen and the ensemble of 22 and full orchestra sound makes this a top flight musical.
The Producers is currently at the Orpheum Theatre, 1192 Market Street, San Francisco and it plays through April 26. Tickets can be obtained at the Orpheum Theatre Box Office, all Ticketmaster ticket centers and through ticketmaster.com. For more information visit bestofbroadway-sf.com. Groups of 20 or more should contact the Group Sales office at 415-551-2020.