From its leggy blond chorines to its goose-stepping pigeons, from its bevy of dithering queens to its battalion of leering old ladies, “The Producers” was, is and will continue to be a big, overstuffed box of theatrical treats. More than a year after taking Broadway by storm, it still provides a dizzying comic rush that sends audiences home with smiles of giddy, slightly guilty pleasure on their faces. Is it legal for Nazis to be this funny?
The assortment inside the candy box is a bit different now, of course. The partnership of the show’s original Bialystock and Bloom, Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick, has now entered the annals of showbiz history, where it is likely to be discussed alongside the great comedy twosomes, from Abbott and Costello to Frasier and Niles. Charged with the formidable tasks of taking over the starring roles are Brad Oscar, formerly the show’s ferocious neo-Nazi nut, Franz Liebkind; and Steven Weber, the appealing star of TV’s “Wings.”
Oscar’s arrival at center stage is a classic showbiz tale in itself. He quickly took over the supporting role of Liebkind during the show’s tryout in Chicago and was initially passed over to replace Lane on Broadway, despite performing the role more than 70 times as Lane struggled with vocal fatigue and illness. The British actor Henry Goodman was hired instead — and quickly fired — and now Oscar has been officially designated the now and future Max.
As his performance as Franz Liebkind suggested, and reports on his intermittent Bialystock performances confirmed, Oscar is a skilled and hard-working performer who throws himself into this demanding role with a rollicking determination that demands respect. His Max has a wily, ferocious energy that is most successfully harnessed in the bravura act two solo “Betrayed,” in which the jailed Max fast-forwards his way through the whole show in about five minutes of music. Oscar dispatches this fiendishly difficult solo with a brilliant polish that that earns him an enthusiastic round of applause.
Indeed, Oscar sings and dances with flair, and knows his way around a joke, too — and yet there’s no escaping that the performance doesn’t possess the radiant charm that Lane’s did. Star quality takes various forms and is not easy to define. What’s clear in retrospect is that Lane’s combination of outsized but utterly natural theatricality and sweet vulnerability were precisely the right recipe for Broadway’s Max Bialystock. His peerless affinity for shtick gift-wrapped even Mel Brooks’ corniest jokes, and the purr in his voice took the edge off Max’s rapaciousness.
Oscar’s Max is both more pallid and less lovable. The laughs don’t land as effortlessly, and when he’s shaking down the old ladies or leering at Ulla, there’s a distinctly more wicked edge to his behavior. While Lane could play the role and make love to the audience at the same time, Oscar merely plays the role. The energy heading both ways across the footlights simply isn’t as strong.
The role of Leo Bloom doesn’t require the same protean comic abilities, so Weber has a lighter burden to bear. He’s a charmingly goofy presence and uses his sweet, if slender, tenor gracefully. Graceful, too, is the way he employs his lanky frame to define Leo’s gawkiness. Leo’s deranged attachment to his comforting blue blanket is communicated with particular zest. Broderick himself was a light comic leading man rather than a clown, and so, too, is Weber. What remains mysterious is why “Producers” producers resist the notion of casting a natural comedian in a role that cries out for one.
There is, of course, plenty of madcappery elsewhere onstage. Indeed, if the kilowattage emanating from the show’s two central roles has dimmed somewhat, the show’s supporting performers seem determined to make up the difference. Gary Beach and Roger Bart, as the fabulously untalented director Roger DeBris and his preening lapdog of an assistant, Carmen Ghia, respectively, are more deliriously preposterous than ever, and they now share a rapport that outshines that of Leo and Max. The musical kicks into high gear when Beach and Bart whip it into a camp frenzy in the number “Keep It Gay.” Cady Huffman still manages the tricky feat of being both luscious and ludicrous as the towering Swedish sexpot Ulla, and Jim Borstelmann takes over the role of Liebkind with tongue-in-cheek razzle-dazzle.
The work of director-choreographer Susan Stroman also remains undimmed. Her musical staging throughout adds immense charm to the evening, and even the transitions between scenes achieve a level of wit that most Broadway shows can’t manage to muster for their big moments. And “Springtime for Hitler,” with its Ziegfeld girls dripping sausages and pretzels and Beach’s vaudeville-in-a-Cuisinart Hitler, may simply be the funniest number in musical comedy history.
But what the new casting in the lead roles reveals most about Brooks’ musical is that it is, at its core, a big gumball of pure shtick. It’s a musical-comedy cathedral built of hoary jokes, lewd sight gags and gleefully silly rhymes. As such it requires not just capable actors but high priests of that soon-to-be-lost art form to give it its full due. Lane was just such a performer, Broderick his ideal henchman. A pairing to match that one doesn’t come along every day.
Will audiences care? Most won’t know what they’ve missed, of course, and without a doubt the musical’s pleasures remain abundant. But some may ask what occasioned all the delirium, and the show’s white-hot reputation will inevitably suffer some diminishment. You can only wonder: Can the show hold out until that distant day when Lane can be cloned?