With more belly laughs per minute than any new musical in years, Mel Brooks’ “The Producers” reminds us in grand, politically incorrect style that Broadway never rewards wimps. Unlike some film-to-stage wrecks, Brooks’ cheerfully outrageous tuner pays detailed homage to the beloved original, but it’s also a self-contained, old-fashioned show replete with gobs of inventive new material, eye-popping choreography and a pair of top-wattage star turns from Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick.
Assuming some serious snafus in the last quarter of the show get fixed, and the running time is trimmed, the boffo team of Bialystock and Bloom look poised to blow away all the Tony competition and steal a monster haul of coin. Overall, this $10.5 million show is already in terrific shape.
Some purist Gotham critics may launch arrows, but they are unlikely to bruise this populist target. The Chi aud fell about laughing for almost the entire evening, and left the theater babbling excitedly about the show’s comic high points and re-living such moments as animatronic chickens doing Heil Hitlers and a Little-Old-Lady chorus line (with walkers) that knocks off the Rockettes’ Toy Soldiers routine with hysterical results.
Certainly, some of the gags are strictly for insiders; Brooks’ witty but technically predictable musical numbers tend to blur in the memory; and you could argue that Nazi jokes don’t pack the satirical punch that they did in 1968, when the movie first appeared. And with its screaming queens, sexist innuendo and gags about slavery, you can forget the family — and the moralistic — auds. This may have ramifications for the road and prevent grosses from leaping into “Lion King” territory.
But on Broadway, at least, this show doesn’t need any prudes. Every savvy urbanite will be in line at the box office ready to partake of Brooks’ patented brand of cathartic spoofery, and Broadway’s core constituencies will all be clamoring for tickets.
Brooks, who penned the songs and much of the book, will likely get most of the attention once this show hits the Great White Way.
He has his limitations as a composer but provides some of the wittiest lyrics New York has seen in years. And the cheery, vaudeville-style melodies fit nicely into the stylistic milieu of classic Broadway. “Der Gutten Tag Hop Clop”? What’s not to love?
Susan Stroman, too, deserves credit for giving the show so much visual class that Brooks’ gags never look cheap. But she also manages to send herself up. Her big numbers (especially the famous “Springtime for Hitler”) are self-referential feasts full of intensely funny and creative ideas. And, in the first act especially, Stroman runs a tight ship replete with smooth transitions, whistle-clean sight gags and a palpable air of improvisational confidence.
Lane and Broderick make such a splendid team that you worry what will happen to this custom-made affair when either one leaves.
As the hapless producer Max Bialystock, who tries to engineer the biggest flop of all time, Lane is both devilish and empathetic. So far, at least, he’s at his best in a first-act Shubert Alley number called “You Never Say Good Luck on Opening Night,” in which his Max tries any number of tricks to jinx his show “Springtime for Hitler,” including bribing the Times critic, breaking a mirror and flinging a squawking black cat into the wings. It’s a howl.
Lane’s greatest contribution, though, is this performer’s innate sense of pace. He’s constantly propelling the show forward and giving all this nonsense a necessary sense of urgency. His big second-act solo, “Betrayed,” suffers from some of the unnecessary clutter that surrounds it, but assuming that’s all cleaned up, he’ll surely be at the top of the Tony list.
Thanks perhaps to worries about trying to re-create the hysterical scene in the movie in which Bialystock and Bloom first meet, Broderick takes a bit longer to find his stride. But his nebbish accountant (which vaguely recalls his work in “You Can Count on Me”) becomes a splendid foil for Lane. Once Broderick has danced his way through a funny producer-fantasy number early in act one, he has the audience in his pocket.
There are a number of rich supporting performances. Roger Bart’s screamingly funny Carmen Ghia steals a couple of the scenes that should belong to Gary Beach, who needs to pipe things up a notch if the two are to match.
There’s terrific work from Cady Huffman as Ulla, the Scandinavian sex object who likes to have sex promptly at eleven each morning. Ron Orbach, who plays the Nazi-loving author, has been injured and will join the cast next week. He’s needed in the role.
All of the problems are centered in the last quarter of the show. After Brooks, Stroman and the inestimable scenic designer Robin Wagner reach a peak with the stunning “Springtime for Hitler” sequence complete with mirrors, pretzel costume and Busby Berkeley-esque swastikas, the show suddenly sags.
In newly added plot elements, Bloom and Ulla abscond with the Little Old Ladies’ money to Rio, only to come back for no good reason whatsoever. Since we’re not looking for either of these lovable scoundrels to reform, this strikes an odd note.
And at the late hour of 10:30, the hitherto rapid-fire plot gets bogged down in a long and predictable courtroom scene. For some reason, Brooks has penned a dumb and sentimental buddy number (“Till Him”) that belongs in a different show and should hit the cutting-room floor before Gotham.
It would be better by far to excise the court and, perhaps, expand the Sing Sing prison sequence that has much more comic promise. The finale is also weaker and less dramatic than the ideal, with many members of the Chi audience thinking they were watching a premature curtain call.
Still, smoothing out such small problems is what tryouts are for. With a few tweaks to the ending, Brooks and Co. will have the biggest hit of the season.