To bill “The Producers” as “A New Mel Brooks Musical,” as the Hollywood Bowl did this weekend, was quite a stretch. New? After two films and legit engagements coast to coast, “Springtime for Hitler” is sorely in need of a spring awakening; the (Bialystock and) Bloom is off the rose. Fortunately, original helmer-choreographer Susan Stroman was on hand to restore some kick and bite to the all-time biggest Tony winner, and a fine time was to be had.
The broad, vulgar Brooks/Thomas Meehan fandango about making a killing by staging the worst show ever written is ideal for the Bowl’s proportions. Sizing up the arena wisely, Stroman had designer Robin Wagner heavily mask the sides so as to deemphasize the enormous expanse. Business, entrances and set changes were mostly staged for maximum efficiency. There was less need than usual to follow the action over the Bowl’s Jumbotron, though the giant screens were put to witty use throughout the evening with posters of past flops (“Death of a Salesman On Ice”) and a Busby Berkeley overhead shot of dancers in swastika formation.
Re-upping “Producers” veterans proved to be the anchors. Tony winner Gary Beach and nominee Roger Bart stepped hilariously back into their roles – respectively, a flamboyant helmer and his light-loafered aide de camp – like well-stretched pairs of pantyhose.
Richard Kind, one of several Main Stem replacements for Nathan Lane’s Max Bialystock, has probably never been equalled (even by Lane) in channeling Zero Mostel’s aggressively anarchic, lecherous burlesque spirit. (Regrettably, the cuts required to comply with Hollywood zoning laws rendered Max almost invisible in act two.)
Those new to the picnic were less successful. Seasoned thesp Jesse Tyler Ferguson seemed unable to escape the specters of Gene Wilder and Matthew Broderick to place his own stamp on milquetoasty Leo, and Rebecca Romijn’s Swedish bombshell Ulla had only good will going for her in the absence of accent and singing skills.
On the other hand, Dane Cook proved to possess the musical comedy chops pre-event publicity boasted about. The standup phenom’s Franz Liebkind – unregenerate Nazi and tyro playwright – owed a obvious debt to Will Ferrell’s turn in the 2004 movie. Yet a crazily youthful streak of his own brought his scenes to amusing life, and he sang and danced with confidence.
Kevin Stites led the Bowl Orchestra with brio, though this show’s musical values have never been its long suit.
At the finale Brooks took to the stage to single out Stroman, and rightly so, in thanking the company. “Isn’t it amazing what they accomplished in just three days?” the legendary funnyman burbled. “They were almost good!”