Stereotypes are the meat and potatoes of Mel Brooks’ “The Producers” and an able cast is stuffed to the gills with exaggeration as Brooks’ Nazis on Broadway musical is transformed from the star showcase it was on the Great White Way to a wild ‘n’ wacky ensemble piece. Jason Alexander isn’t about to command the stage the way Nathan Lane did in the show’s Tony-winning initial run, and that’s OK — the work’s overall effectiveness is wholly intact and the supporting cast is up to the task. It is still side-splittingly funny, the production numbers are stunners and Brooks’ tunes (“We Can Do It,” “Keep It Gay,” “Springtime for Hitler”) are on their way to a long shelf life. The Alexander-Martin Short dynamic is strong and fresh, testimony to the fact that Bialystock & Bloom can be successfully interpreted on varying levels. The only cause for concern is Alexander’s voice, which cracked and grew gritty as the second act wore on.
The casting always has been an issue for Brooks’ musical version of his 1968 film in which an accountant and a producer scheme to swindle old ladies out of $2 million as they attempt to stage the world’s worst musical. Current pairing of Alexander as the plummeting legend of the Great White Way Max Bialystock and Martin Short as the inexperienced accountant Leo Bloom dispatches the notion of mentor and student if for no other reason than the two men look too close in age. This Bialystock and Bloom pairing blossoms by concerning itself less with experience vs. youth and more with friendship; they close the evening with broad, sincere smiles and a sense of level partnership that in other duos wasn’t necessarily the case, especially Matthew Broderick as youthful Bloom and Lane’s more disarming Bialystock.
Short doesn’t possess the childlike nebbishness Broderick invested in his Bloom. (For that matter, neither did Gene Wilder in the film). Short embellishes the character’s nervous tics with a tremendous amount of body comedy, flopping about the stage and contorting, seeking laughs in a vaudeville/silent-film style. Play is set in 1959, for what it’s worth, though little about it suggests any particular time, giving Short plenty of leeway to push Bloom in any direction he chooses. Short has a sufficient voice to complement the character’s winsome traits; Bloom’s the one guy who actually evolves over the three hours onstage.
His clumsiness and unease contrast with Alexander’s insolent Bialystock. Much as the role is show’s biggest, Alexander is not concerned with having all eyes on his reactions — he instead defers the attention to other characters’ behavioral flare-ups to get the laughs. Alexander’s Bialystock is the straight, straight man in this musical. He is often the controlled one onstage, the one actor not comically extending a hand motion or a diphthong or a goose step, and one hopes that his raspy singing voice was a one-night-only flaw.
Gary Beach, as “Springtime” director Roger De Bris, and his “common-law assistant” Carmen Ghia (Josh Prince) take two already ribald characters and push them into a camp netherworld. Just as De Bris is called upon to save Bialystock & Bloom’s tuner, Beach punches up De Bris as an unlikely yet welcoming hero. He moves from a regal drag queen early on to a Liza Minnelli-esque presence (not that big a stretch, actually) when he’s forced into the musical within the musical. The highly affected and flamboyant Ghia character is a hoot to begin with and Prince’s consistency in his walks and mannerism gives the character an unexpected realism.
Angie Schworer’s Ulla, the Swede who approached B&B for an audition and ends up married to Bloom while on the lam in Rio, is potent as the show’s sex appeal; even if she just flashed leg and cleavage, the point would be made. Schworer is a lot like Alexander, though, letting Susan Stroman’s kinetic direction and Brooks’ words do the work for her as she beautifies the stage. Fred Applegate, as “Springtime” playwright Franz Liebkind, attracts laughs with the show’s famous pigeon routine, and knocks ’em dead singing “Haben Sie Gehort Das Deutsche Band?” after delivering the killer line: “Hitler was butch.”
Otherwise, the sets, choreography and orchestrations are exactly the same as what’s playing at Broadway’s St. James Theater. Few roadshows that transfer from the New York stage convey the feel of Broadway (beyond the wallet) as well as this version of “The Producers.” It’s a zany ride that plays far better toward the front of the house than in the seats at the back of the Pantages’ deep orchestra section, but its brashness could fill a venue three times the size and still gratify auds.