The Producers - The New MEL BROOKS Musical 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.
No one who was following New York theatre in 2001 is likely to forget the flurry of excitement and rave reviews that greeted The Producers, the stage musical version of Mel Brooks's classic 1968 film. Following its winning a record 12 Tony Awards, it seemed as if the show's star would not stop shining for a very long time. Today, exactly two years and three months after its Broadway opening, things are still well lit, just not looking quite as bright.
On a material level, the show - with a score by Brooks, a book by Brooks and Thomas Meehan, and direction and choreography from Susan Stroman - is as good as it ever was. But original star Nathan Lane helped make it something more - in his capable hands, the show was a transcendent comic experience, maybe not the best show ever, but an experience unlike most others. What's currently on display at the St. James is, in many ways, an excellent indication of how the show will play once it's finished its Broadway run and turned over to the rest of the world: Strongly, but not amazingly.
Simply put, new star Lewis J. Stadlen is no Nathan Lane. He's not even Brad Oscar, Lane's original understudy and first long-playing successor in the role. Stadlen's Max Bialystock, the now-failed Broadway producer clamoring for a hit show to put him back on the scene, is darker and more brooding, with but flashes of comic inspiration. His jokes are tools to slash or stab to relieve himself of anger and despondency about his lot in life.
From a strictly acting viewpoint, Stadlen's is perhaps the finest Max yet seen on Broadway, though it puts too much weight on the show. He can't easily be funny, neither the type to comment ironically or humorously on his position to anyone on the street or charismatically persuade accountant Leo Bloom to take up a life of crime to succeed in show business. There's less Stadlen in Stadlen's Max than Groucho Marx, Jimmy Durante, Rex Harrison, and, unfortunately, Nathan Lane; what little of Stadlen remains is locked into a format Lane established long before Stadlen even started the national tour. Perhaps, under the circumstances, Stadlen is doing his best.
His partner in crime, Don Stephenson, does much better. He's likely Broadway's best Leo yet, a significant improvement from the constipated, highly-affected shtick Matthew Broderick and Steven Weber practiced. Stephenson handles Leo's transition from uptight corporate drone to freewheeling Broadway playboy beautifully, physically and emotionally. He's also a dynamite singer; the last line in the scene-change reprise of his "I Wanna Be A Producer," "Look out Broadway, here I come!", is a true roof-raiser.
As renowned theatrical director Roger DeBris, John Treacy Egan lacks Gary Beach's natural comic gifts, seldom savoring his moments onstage, and giving an overly-labored and even mechanical performance in "Springtime for Hitler." (The number doesn't exactly flop under Egan, but it certainly doesn't soar.) As that play's militant German author, Peter Samuel gives a performance recalling English music hall style in manner and accent that feels highly out of place.
Brad Musgrove's Carmen Ghia, DeBris's overly-swishy "common-law assistant," lacks original star Roger Bart's freshness, but finds most of the laughs Bart did and a few he didn't. It's still a fine, funny performance. So is Madeleine Doherty's Hold-me, Touch-me, one of the little old ladies who invests in Max's shows; she's finding more and bigger laughs now than ever before. The show's last remaining original principal performer, Cady Huffman, has honed her performance as Swedish bombshell (and Leo's eventual love interest) Ulla into one that's broader in some ways and narrower in others, though it still works overall.
But that type of mellowing isn't what The Producers needs. With characters this unrealistic, situations this zany, and songs and jokes this unabashedly in-your-face from beginning to end, it will never completely succeed unless it's completely over the top. The show doesn't need Nathan Lane to succeed, but it does need a real anchoring force in its central roles, and when that's lacking - as it is now - the show is somewhat adrift.
Even so, The Producers can't completely disappoint. Robin Wagner's Technicolor scenery, William Ivey Long's gaudy and glittering costumes, and Peter Kaczorowski's often magical lighting remain strong, as do Stroman's fast-paced direction and clever choreography, and the non-stop jokes in dialogue and song. The first act's final scene, with Max financing Springtime for Hitler with an erotic trip through Little Old Lady Land and a final full-cast chorus of near-symphonic authority, remains energizing and exciting.
There was a time when all of The Producers was imbued with that feeling, but no longer. Perhaps new (or, more likely, old) cast members can help retrieve it, or perhaps the mellowing effects of time have taken their inevitable toll, and the show will have to settle for not being great, but merely quite good. In either case, it seems fairly evident that the reign of The Producers as sure-fire mega hit has ended. Its reign as a solid, entertaining show, however, is just beginning, and is unlikely to end any time soon.