Whether “The Producers” should be classified as a Broadway musical or a party exploding eight times a week at the St. James Theater can be debated. However you choose to describe it, the show is a rip-roaring, gut-busting, rib-tickling, knee-slapping, aisle-rolling (insert your own compound adjective here) good time. This big whoopee cushion of a musical simultaneously restores its primary author, Mel Brooks — the granddaddy of grossout humor, after all — to his rightful place of honor in showbiz, and gives Broadway the kind of headline-making megahit it hasn’t seen since a certain Disney feline came to town.
How funny is “The Producers”? Well, Robin Wagner’s sets are funny; William Ivey Long’s costumes are funny; Paul Huntley’s wigs and hair are funny (note the tribute to the film’s Zero Mostel’s ghastly comb-over created for Nathan Lane); Susan Stroman’s choreography is deliriously funny; the cast, from top to bottom, is funny; even the transitions between scenes and the song titles are funny (“Der Guten Tag Hop Clop,” for God’s sake!). Funniest of all, of course, are the book by Brooks and Thomas Meehan, and the lyrics by Brooks.
It certainly helps to start with one of the finest film comedies of all time, the 1968 picture for which Brooks won an original screenplay Oscar. The musical takes a few new (and unnecessary) detours, but it essentially tells the famous story of down-at-heels Broadway producer Max Bialystock and his can’t-lose scheme to get rich by intentionally producing a megaflop, the musical “Springtime for Hitler,” and heading to Rio with the investors’ money.
Merely transcribed to the stage, the show probably would be successful: The material is inherently terrific. But Brooks and his collaborators go further, capitalizing on the new medium in ways that add immensely to its appeal. Jokes older than Brooks’ 2,000-year-old man are inserted into the proceedings like cloves on a holiday ham (when a mincing queen turns to somebody and says, “Walk this way,” you know what’s coming). But the theatrical medium lets the performers offer them up with a grimace or a wink that receives happy acknowledgment from an irony-sated audience hungry for good, old-fashioned bad jokes. Kidding itself as it goes along, the show also pokes happy fun at all sorts of stage conventions: “Why you move so far downstage right?” Swedish supervixen Ulla earnestly asks a retreating Leo Bloom at one point.
Brooks’ score will not enter the pantheon of musical classics, but this master parodist clearly is an avid student of the Broadway musical and he knows how to structure a standard show tune. The songs’ catchy simplicities are enhanced by clever visual jokes (those priceless pigeons!), percolating arrangements from Glen Kelly or the brilliant choreography of Stroman, who creates a series of giddy, increasingly inspired stage pictures culminating, of course, in the extravaganza of “Springtime for Hitler.” Stroman’s customary, inventive use of props pays off spectacularly throughout the evening, particularly in a mad, rhythmic romp for Max’s little-old-lady investors that should not be spoiled by any further description.
The show has been expertly cast, with an array of neatly etched comic performances orbiting busily around Lane’s career-topping turn as Max Bialystock. Lane’s sad-sack eyes and air of desperate disgust are perfect for the frenzied, hapless Max; a master of the single, double and triple take, Lane gets to use all his shameless theatricality in this role, culminating in a strenuous act two solo number, “Betrayal,” in which he speedily recaps the entire show in about three minutes of music. (Like some other diversions the show takes in a padded-feeling second act, this number is strictly unnecessary, but it’s still fun.)
Matthew Broderick will have a tougher time winning over audiences enamored of the inimitable Gene Wilder’s bigscreen take on Bloom, the milquetoast accountant Max corrals into joining his scheme. His performance is fresh and delightful when he’s dancing and prancing in semi-awkward bliss at the prospect of producing fame or a sexual liaison with the luscious Ulla, but Broderick is a bit self-conscious at other times — a likable musical-comedy leading man, he’s not really the natural clown for which the role seems to call.
There is plenty of clowning elsewhere, in any case. Offering delicious support as the pert Ulla is Cady Huffman, whose endless legs and ample chest seem possessed of independent comic instincts. Brad Oscar’s Franz Liebkind, the neo-Nazi playwright and pigeon-keeper, is a big bite of comic bratwurst. Gary Beach and Roger Bart serve up a twin set of extravagantly silly gay caricatures as director Roger De Bris and his “common-law assistant” Carmen Ghia, respectively.
Beach nimbly parodies everyone from Jolson to Garland in his sprawling solo turn at the center of “Springtime for Hitler,” while Bart, a Tony-winning canine in “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown,” continues to forage in the animal kingdom, playing his role as a scene-pilfering mixture of a preening Persian cat and a twitching, queer cockatoo. (This show is definitely not for the stereotype-sensitive.)
Whether it’s because they’re primed by word of mouth or simply starved for brassy, take-no-prisoners comedy on Broadway, audiences are devouring the show, lapping up the hoary jokes and pratfalls as if they were manna from heaven. In a way, they are. Broadway is increasingly divided between highbrow plays and bland, family-friendly musical spectacles, with the occasional highbrow musical valiantly striving to marry the two extremes, usually to leaden results.
“The Producers” is not a work of art, but it’s a highly accomplished piece of lowdown entertainment. And how delicious that a show about the attempted detonation of a Broadway bomb should become the first Broadway smash of the new century.