Seven years after “The Producers” conquered Broadway, the show has a new and arguably trickier challenge at hand: proving it’s OK for a country that surrendered itself to the Third Reich to laugh at the darkest hour in its history. But if opening-night receptions are an adequate barometer, Austria is ready to embrace Mel Brooks’ no-holds-barred musical.
While the show has toured extensively throughout the world, the Vienna production marks its debut in a German-language edition. The book is a basic, straightforward translation of the original, which contains perhaps a few too many references to things American. Jokes about the Chrysler Building and Sing Sing, Yiddish humor and parodies of other shows (“Katz,” “Maim”) get lost in translation.
Invariably, translating lyrics is a difficult business, especially with patter. On opening night, Max Bialystock’s “The King of Broadway” was rendered almost unintelligible by the new sound system of the Ronacher Theater, the 1886 revue hall reopened after a E46.8 million ($73.4 million) renovation. Clearly, some kinks are still being worked out; the audio balance swerved from perfect to overbearing throughout the performance.
Since the German language itself is the target for memorable spoofs in so many Brooks films (think of Madeline Kahn’s Lili Von Shtupp in “Blazing Saddles,” or Cloris Leachman’s Frau Blucher in “Young Frankenstein”), some substantial rewriting was necessary. Nazi playwright Franz Liebkind sings “Der Guten Tag Hop-Clop” in the English version, which native German speakers simply wouldn’t find funny. However, sung by Herbert Steinbock as “Der Rechts Herum Hupf Auf” with an outrageously thick Bavarian accent, it marked a turning point in the show: the audience grew giddy for the first time, signaling it was indeed OK to laugh.
The one number that needed no changes, “Haben Sie Gehort Die Deutsche Band,” is so show-stoppingly over-the-top that only a minor tweak for grammatical correctness was necessary.
Director Susan Stroman has lovingly recreated her original production with its quaint 1950s designs by Robin Wagner and William Ivey Long. And there’s been no cutting back on the most potentially controversial aspect of the show: its generous use of the swastika, the public showing of which is illegal and punishable in the Austrian post-war criminal code, except for scholarly purposes.
Silence occasionally gripped the first-night aud at the sight of the twisted double cross, or the occasional musical quote from Nazi anthem “Deutschland Uber Alles.” And the biggest display — the human swastika formed by chorus girls in the “Springtime for Hitler” production number reflected over the stage in a giant mirror — caused a distinct drop in temperature. But as delivered by Rob Pelzer, a simple line like Carmen Ghia’s “May I take your hats and coats and swastikas?” was cause for spontaneous applause.
Cornelius Obonya and Andreas Bieber have made Max and Leo so much their own creations that thoughts of Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick — or even Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder — rarely intrude. Obonya gives such a powerhouse performance he could single-handedly solve the energy crisis, while baby-faced Bieber is so naturally cuddly and goofy his gradual corruption doubles the comic impact.
Martin Sommerlatte brings the zaniness of Milton Berle in drag to his Roger/Hitler, and massive Herbert Steinbock puts such a delightful, idiotic spin on Franz his every word is cause for hilarity.
Stealing scene after scene as Ulla, Bettina Monch, speaking German with a Swedish accent and amply displaying her long, elegant gams, rips up the stage with “When You Got It, Flaunt It.” She has and she does.
Notorious for stinginess in awarding standing ovations, the Viennese made it clear by leaping to their feet that the show may just validate Brooks’ prediction: “It’ll run forever!”