Also see Richard's review of High Fidelity
According to Paul Blake, Executive Director of the Muny, The Producers was the most-requested show in the audience poll taken last season. And, judging by the appreciative response on opening night, the St. Louis crowd was both eager to see this show and approving of the production on stage.
I was a little less pleased. I love The Producers, but it is an extremely demanding show under the best of circumstances. Problems associated with the Muny's large stage and the necessity to put each production together quickly were reflected in some less-than-satisfactory elements of the performance on Monday evening.
For a show that won so many awards, The Producers is remarkably thinly written: it seems to date from a time before the book musical even existed. Look closely and you'll see that the show is mainly a succession of songs, jokes and production numbers held together by a story lifted from the 1968 film of the same name but significantly altered in the direction of cheeriness and conventionality.
The book's thinness was not a problem in the original Broadway production. Who cares about a story when you've got Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick, not to mention William Ivey Long's costumes and Robin Wagner's sets? But take away the big name stars and elaborate production elements and place the show on the largest outdoor stage in America and the seams start to show.
The plot concerns the efforts of producer Max Bialystock (Lewis J. Stadlen) and accountant Leo Bloom (Don Stephenson) to put on the worst play ever. It all starts when Leo points out to Max that he could raise more money than he needs to put on a show and pocket the excess, as long as the show is a flop: no profits means no need to pay off the backers. In pursuit of this goal, they acquire a lead actress with an astonishingly bad Swedish accent (Ulla, played by Angie Schworer), a hopelessly incompetent director (Roger DeBris, played by Lee Roy Reams), and the improbably titled play Springtime for Hitler, written by Franz Liebkind (Anthony Cummings). It's not a bad story (and it made a great movie) but in this musical, time spent developing the plot seems like an intrusion between the succession of songs and production numbers, which are the real point of the show.
I have all the respect in the world for Lewis J. Stadlen and Don Stephenson. Both are consummate theatre professionals and veterans of many productions of The Producers. But neither could command the vast Muny stage on Monday night, which is unfortunate, given that they play the lead characters in this show. Stadlen in particular seems unsuited for his role: his singing voice is not strong, he often seems to be playing an imitation of a stock character from some forgotten B movie, and he's physically smaller than Stephenson (a problem given the "fat" insults in the text).
You may object that it's impossible for a single actor to command the Muny stage. In refutation I offer the performances of Angie Schworer and Lee Roy Reams, both of whom show how it is done. Larry Raben (Carmen Ghia) and Anthony Cummings also contribute strong performances, and the show works much better when it moves away from the isolated interactions between Max and Leo. The initial scenes in Max's office in particular require a sense of claustrophobia and are simply lost in the cavernous, minimal set provided at the Muny.
The production numbers are mostly a disappointment. Many seem to have been planned for a smaller venue (dancers sprinting frantically across the stage is never a good sign, unless you are putting on a show about a track meet), and the painted flats only point out that the stage is much too large for the action taking place on it. This is a show about excess, not subtlety, and trying to do it on the cheap is likely to fail. Some of the ensemble numbers, in particular the famous walker dance, were sloppy and under-rehearsed. The best visual joke in the show, dancers forming a swastika, might as well be left out if the audience can't see it.
The Producers is not a show for the easily offended: there are Nazis, gay stereotypes, erection jokes, and bad language galore. None of it is meant to seriously hurt, however, and writer Mel Brooks has his heart in the right place. This production also throws in some St. Louis references, perhaps to make up for the laughs missed by the New York jokes which fell flat. I'm mystified by some of the random Yiddishisms, however: is shtupp really thought to be less offensive than its English equivalent?
The Producers will run at the St. Louis Muny through June 22.. Ticket information is available from www.straydogtheatre.org and 314-865-1995. Next up at The Muny is Disney's High School Musical, which will run June 23-July 2, 2008.