For those of us who grew up watching legendary British performances come to Broadway, there’s a unique satisfaction in seeing the traffic reversed. London auds have only until Jan. 8 to see Nathan Lane play Max Bialystock in the Mel Brooks musical “The Producers,” in what is surely the last time the actor will tackle this role onstage. (Next year’s film version, of course, awaits.) Lane has never seemed — or sounded — so fresh, his amazing generosity of spirit, lung power and comic timing making him the American goodwill ambassador to Britain we sorely need right now.
As everyone must be well aware, Lane arrived on the West End at the eleventh hour to bail out a staging that reportedly had a hole at the center, where by rights there should be a star: Musical novice Richard Dreyfuss pulled out a week before the first preview, sending red flags flying — and a vacationing Lane packing his bags to fly the Atlantic.
I hadn’t seen Mel Brooks’ multiple-Tony winner since a matinee late in Broadway previews, and remained doubtful that the buzz generated at the time would ever again find its match. But that was to discount not just the return to peak form of Lane, but also an irresistible comic cohort in Englishman Lee Evans, whose Leo Bloom lends a ferociously well-drilled show something it didn’t possess in New York: a richly abundant heart.
Those who know what Lane can do won’t be surprised by his London Bialystock, merely amazed at the continued ease with which he does it. (Lane’s apparent effortlessness in the part must head the list of reasons why his shoes have proven so difficult to fill.)
Not so much speaking lines as knocking them into comic submission, Lane holds the vast Drury Lane Theater in his fleshy palm, whether referring to the nutty Bavarian Franz Liebkind’s “Der Guten Tag Hop Clop” as “sort of a Nazi hoedown” or noting in amazement of a swastika, “Look, reversible.” Yet like all the best clowns, of whom Lane surely is one, the performer every so often lets slip something darker and more suggestive, in this case the implication that Bialystock for all his shyster antics is emotionally incomplete — until he discovers in Bloom not just a trainee conman but the friend he never had.
The equation is made complete, and then some, by Evans, who, between this musical debut and his revelatory perf earlier in the year in Beckett’s “Endgame,” is on quite a roll. A rubber-limbed funnyman with some of the same bendy finesse as Rowan Atkinson’s Mr. Bean, Evans rightly resists the temptation to pull faces all night long.
Indeed, in a way not even Matthew Broderick managed, the British alum of such films as “Mouse Hunt” (which co-starred Lane) fully reveals the wide-eyed romantic that lies beneath Bloom’s mousy veneer.
When early in the show his dreary accountant’s confines fly away to allow Bloom a fantasist’s supple footwork, Evans quite palpably lifts the house, only later to moisten numerous eyes with an infinitely touching “‘Til Him,” the musical’s hymn to (platonic) love. It’s a gorgeous perf.
The rest of director-choreographer Susan Stroman’s European preem of “The Producers” — the closest the show containing “Springtime for Hitler” has yet got to Germany — isn’t always so airborne. Robin Wagner’s sets don’t equal their Broadway luster, suggesting they may have been made to travel: There’s an awful lot of black flanking the edges of the stage.
And as Roger DeBris, the director who ends up starring in his own Third Reich-themed folly, Conleth Hill isn’t outsized enough in either voice or presence to anchor a number that is beyond limits when it comes to outsized bad taste. (Playing his “common-law assistant,” Carmen Ghia, James Dreyfus is more smarmy than funny, though he’s good at the sorts of arm extensions one associates with Maggie Smith.)
But to paraphrase the title of one of Brooks’ more tuneful songs, everything goes right with Nicolas Colicos’ robustly sung Liebkind, whose own fantasies lead toward artistic dementia (is there any other kind?) and away from the domestic bliss Bloom eventually finds.
As the all-but-unpronounceable Ulla, the leggy actress-secretary who becomes the accountant’s missus, Leigh Zimmerman would steal the production were it not shored up by Lane, whose London success only echoes the question raised long ago on Broadway: How do you replace the truly irreplaceable?