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The Producers (04/19/2001 - 04/22/2007)


 

New York Daily News: "Such a Production!"

There is only one logical conclusion to be drawn from the triumphant musical Mel Brooks has made from his fabulously funny movie "The Producers." He must run for mayor. If he can revive something I didn't expect to see in my lifetime - musical comedy, with an emphasis on the latter - he can surely carry off the much easier task of running New York. "The Producers" is the first new musical in years with an inescapably New York energy. Imagine what Brooks could bring to a mayoral race that promises to be so dreary they'll probably close it out of town. I came to this realization early in the second act, when I could not control my foot keeping time with the music. The song in question was being sung by Franz Liebkind, an unrepentant Nazi who has written "Springtime for Hitler," a musical valentine to the Führer. Every educated person, I assume, knows the plot of "The Producers." The title characters believe "Springtime" is the worst play possible to produce; their assumption is that when you have a flop, no one worries about where the money goes. Max Bialystock (Nathan Lane) has romanced dozens of ancient, rich women to raise $2 million to mount the surefire flop he and his partner, Leopold Bloom (Matthew Broderick), know Liebkind's musical will be. And to guarantee this goal, they have hired the deliciously swishy director Roger DeBris. Liebkind, angry at the men auditioning to play Adolf, sings "Haben Sie Gehoert das Deutsche Band" to show them how the material must be done. Like all the other songs in the show, it was written by Brooks. (He would be our first songwriting mayor since Jimmy Walker.) Many are parodies. All are verbally deft and melodically beguiling. Most are short and funny, but Brooks' best, "'Til Him," is a hymn to friendship that comes toward the end, and is surprisingly sweet. "Haben Sie Gehoert," however, with its pidgin German, is just silly. Brad Oscar, who plays Liebkind, sings it with gusto and dances its daffy combination of buck and wing and goose steps with manic energy. I found it irresistible. Moments later comes the spectacular production number, "Springtime for Hitler" - as inspired a piece of satiric lunacy as has ever been written. Brilliant as it is in the film, it's even more so here, because it includes a solo by DeBris, who has taken over the role of Hitler for opening night, singing about his showbiz career ("I'm the German Ethel Merman, don'tcha know?") with winsome Judy Garland gestures.

Brooks' material is no less outrageous than it was 30 years ago. His major ally is director and choreographer Susan Stroman, who mounted the last major attempt to restore the comedy to musicals, "Crazy for You." Here, she raises choreographic dizziness to unparalleled heights - as in a wild ballet for sex-starved old ladies, who do quasi-gymnastic routines on their walkers. She has also built the large, eccentric cast into a powerful ensemble. Nathan Lane does his funniest work in years. He dashes about as furiously as an ungainly bulldog, and the futility of it is oddly touching. He sings Brooks' klezmer-like laments with great bravura. (Yes, Nathan, all is forgiven.) Matthew Broderick sings and dances with suitably forlorn charm and makes Bloom's neuroses endearing. Cady Huffman is splendid as their drolly oversexed Swedish secretary, Ulla. Gary Beach is sensational as DeBris, especially when he outlines his plans to give "Hitler" a happy ending. Roger Bart is equally hilarious as his mincing assistant, Carmen Ghia. Kathy Henderson is unforgettable in the role of their lighting designer, Shirley Markowitz. Set designer Robin Wagner, also part of the "Crazy for You" team, wittily echoes some of those designs here, but his use of mirrors in the big number, partly to parody the original "Cabaret," is unusually brilliant. Peter Kaczorowski's lighting adds immeasurably to the fun. Yet another member of the "Crazy" team, costume designer William Ivey Long, has outdone himself, especially in his brazenly grandiose concoctions for the showgirls in "Springtime."

No new musical in ages has offered so much imagination, so much sheer pleasure. If we make Brooks our mayor, we'll laugh and sing and dance for eight years. I hope the show runs much longer.


New York Daily News
04/20/2001

New York Post: "Springtime for B'way"

“The Producers" is a cast-iron, copper-bottomed, superduper, mammoth old-time Broadway hit.

There are few trickier problems that can beset a show than advance hype suggesting it's the dandiest thing to hit Broadway since tip-up seats. Over-expectation can be a killer. Alternatively, under-expectation can be a godsend.

So it is a mad joy to say that everything terrific you heard about "The Producers" is 100 percent true - well, 97 percent true, for a critic must keep a sense of proportion - and if you heard anything bad, it's a dirty lie.

Mel Brooks' first musical - oh, to be a springlike neophyte at the age of 2000, or whatever age the man currently claims! - opened last night at the St. James Theatre with Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick, both great, leading one of the finest ensemble casts in modern Broadway history. It's a joke-embossed zinger that never gets a rhyme wrong.

The making of this Susan Stroman-guided hit looks transparently complex, an object lesson in the good old Broadway trade of adaptation.

The task of translating Brooks' brilliant but undisciplined Oscar-winning screenplay for his legendary 1968 movie "The Producers" should have proved attractive but virtually insurmountable - like Everest on a bad snow day.

Yet, with uncanny skill and grace, Brooks and the co-writer of the musical's book, Thomas Meehan, have crafted a story - cutting here, adding there - even more persuasive and funnier than the original movie. And it is still a wondrously absurd, but perhaps not that tall, a tale.

If anyone has just dropped in by carrier pigeon from Omsk, Tomsk or points north, that tale concerns a rascally producer down on his luck, who conspires with a timid accountant to cook the books on a Broadway fiasco, and scoot away from a one-night disaster with an unaccounted and unaccountable surplus 2 million bucks in their pockets.

All the scheme needs is a flop. They think they have found one in a little musical called "Springtime for Hitler," and go to great pains to find the worst director and hire the worst actors to guarantee a flop of flops. But . . . well, you never do know on Broadway, do you?

Brooks' music is cunningly arranged by Glen Kelly, who, in Brooks' own words "Took my rude, simple 32-bar songs and made them sound like glorious and memorable show tunes," which were then boldly orchestrated by Doug Besterman, who made them, again in Brooks' jocular and possibly biased opinion, "meet, match and even outdo some of the great Broadway musical comedy classics."

Yeah, well - the music isn't at all bad, but that's the most surprising thing about it, and certainly the score need not cause Stephen Sondheim sleepless nights or have Irving Berlin twisting restlessly in an unquiet grave.

But the very serviceable music is really only the agreeable and conventional fabric to hold the lyrics together - and the lyrics are superb, dazzlingly witty and miraculously adroit.

For example, Brooks finds 10 relevant rhymes for "nights" without repeating himself - harder to do than you might imagine - and, throughout, the sheer nimbleness of his wordplay simply enchants.

So Brooks and Meehan are heroes, but then so is the redoubtable Susan Stroman, who, in both staging and choreography, outdoes even herself in ingenuity, imagination and plain, old showbiz pizazz.

There's the ballet for old ladies in walkers. And the Busby Berkeley-style swastika ensemble that puts the climactic cuckoo-call in the actual "Springtime for Hitler" number.

And then there's the mechanical pigeons (don't ask). And the finale, which rounds off the story much more effectively than did the screenplay - although, as in the movie, the ending still sags from earlier heights.

Stroman, the designers and the cast have steered Brooks' piratical vessel into the safest of harbors.

Robin Wagner's scenery is not only fantastic in its humor but perfect in its cohesion with the plot, and the same can be said for William Ivey Long's mock-elegant costumes, and Peter Kaczorowski's inventive lighting.

As for the performers I do know where to start: With Lane's brash, fierce and indomitable crooked producer, a man to a cloak and fedora born, and Broderick's meek accountant, with a voice strangled with hysteria and using a security blanket as a Kleenex tissue - I just don't know where to finish.

Everyone - from the last chorus girl on the right to the last chorus boy on the left - was absolutely terrific.

But I have to mention the delectable, Swedish-language-challenged but legs triumphant, Cady Huffman; Gary Beach, who not only does wonders for the English luvvie of a director, but also gets to play Hitler; Roger Bart as a glorious sidekick, who makes him look butch; and the guttural ubermensch of a playwright, an unregenerate storm trooper, the gorgeously grotesque Brad Oscar.

One last point. Will "The Producers" be controversial? It must be admitted that, like the movie, it makes fun of Adolf Hitler and his Third Reich, which some may find offensive in its satiric trivialization of a serious subject.

Speaking as someone who 61 years ago was possibly only 22 miles of water and a rather good Air Force away from becoming a bar of soap, I did not find it offensive.

I found it triumphant. After all, we won.


New York Post
04/20/2001

New York Times: "A Scam That'll Knock 'Em Dead"

How do you single out highlights in a bonfire? Everybody who sees ''The Producers'' -- and that should be as close to everybody as the St. James Theater allows -- is going to be hard-pressed to choose one favorite bit from the sublimely ridiculous spectacle that opened last night.

There is, for starters, that swanning song-and-dance man Adolf Hitler having his Judy Garland moment, lovingly seated in a spotlight at the edge of the stage. And of course there are those Nazi storm troopers making like the June Taylor Dancers, and all those sweet, oversexed little old ladies using their aluminum walkers to tap-dance.

But how about those glittering, Swastika-wearing pigeons in cages that coo a fluttery backup to a demented Nazi on a roof in Greenwich Village? And what about Matthew Broderick bringing out the Fred Astaire in his nerdlike character and reminding us in the process that Fred Astaire really was kind of a nerd? And how about -- yeah, how about -- Nathan Lane, in his most delicious performance ever, re-enacting the entire show in a song that lasts about five minutes and feels like 30 seconds?

Oh, let's stop for breath, step back a second and admit that ''The Producers,'' the comic veteran Mel Brooks's stage adaptation of his own cult movie from 1968, is as full of gags, gadgets and gimmicks as an old vaudevillian's trunk. But the show, which has a book by Mr. Brooks and Thomas Meehan with songs by Mr. Brooks (you heard me), is much more than the sum of its gorgeously silly parts.

It is, to put it simply, the real thing: a big Broadway book musical that is so ecstatically drunk on its powers to entertain that it leaves you delirious, too. Mr. Brooks, a Brooklyn boy who grew up in the age of Cole Porter and Busby Berkeley, is totally, giddily in love with the showbiz mythology he is sending up here.

With the inspired assistance of Susan Stroman, his director and choreographer, and the happiest cast in town, Mr. Brooks has put on a show that is a valentine to every show there is, good and bad, about putting on a show. And the expert production team -- Robin Wagner (sets), William Ivey Long (costumes) and Peter Kaczorowski (lighting) -- turns the stage into a bright, endlessly evocative dreamscape that skewers and celebrates the looks of great musicals from ''Gypsy'' to ''Follies.''

Whether as an actor, film director or writer, Mr. Brooks has always worked from a manic imagination, in which jokes breed jokes that keep morphing into ever-more absurd mutant forms. Here, he channels the hyper-charged, free-associating style of the stand-up improviser into a remarkably polished riff on the kinds of entertainment he grew up with. The whole evening operates on a self-perpetuating, can-you-top-this energy, generating enough electricity to light up California for the next century.

For a production that makes a point of being tasteless, ''The Producers'' exudes a refreshing air of innocence. In fact, ardent fans of the film, which starred Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder, may feel it has been defanged. As a movie, ''The Producers'' was harsher and cruder in its satire, though you could also detect the sentimental streak that emerges more fully here. For the musical adaptation, Mr. Brooks is still biting the hand that feeds him, but at the same time he is kissing it quite sincerely.

If you grew up in the 1960's, you probably know the plot. Max Bialystock (Mr. Lane), an operatically desperate impresario of Broadway flops, meets Leopold Bloom (Mr. Broderick), a public accountant who is as repressed as Max is flamboyant. This unlikely couple cooks up what would seem to be a sure-fire scam, given Max's history: produce a play that is guaranteed to fail, selling more than 1,000 percent in investments, and then abscond with the backers' money.

Their choice as the worst of all possible plays? A paean to the Third Reich by one Franz Liebkind (Brad Oscar), a pigeon-keeping Nazi, called ''Springtime for Hitler.'' And for the worst of all possible directors? A theater queen to end all theater queens, the lavender-voiced Roger De Bris (Gary Beach), first seen in a ballgown and headdress that he worries makes him look like the Chrysler Building. (He's right.)

This is all more or less straight from the movie, as is Max's systematic trading of sexual favors for checks (made out to ''Cash,'' which is remarked upon as an unusual title for a play) with scores of rich, lonely geriatric women. But Mr. Brooks, whose knack for musical pastiche was evident in the screwball production numbers in the movies ''Blazing Saddles'' and ''High Anxiety,'' here turns practically everything into an occasion for song and dance.

The show comes at you like a supersonic train from its first scene, which represents an opening night of yet another Bialystock fiasco, and it never lets up. Mr. Lane's opening number, in which Max gets down (way down) with the winos on the street as he laments his lost glory, sets the tone for everything that follows.

It's fast, fierce, shameless, vulgar and altogether blissful. The song features blunt but perfectly cadenced lyrics, a simple tune that joyfully recalls every Gypsy violin-Russian cossack specialty number ever performed and matching choreography from Ms. Stroman that accelerates to the point that you expect friction fires.

When Mr. Lane's Max, suggesting a cozy version of David Merrick (if such a phenomenon were possible), flings his opera cape around himself, we're goners. He is so clearly enamored of that self-dramatizing gesture, so absolutely thrilled to be strutting in a way that only Broadway musicals permit.

Tirelessly agile (great extensions, Mr. Lane), droll and exhibitionistic, with a clarinet speaking voice that segues naturally into song, this Max is the perfect agent for seducing timid little Leo into the unholy pleasures of showbiz. For that, finally, is what ''The Producers'' is about.

And what a pleasure it is to watch Mr. Broderick being seduced. This popular movie actor puts aside the boyish charm, for once, creating a slumped, adenoidal figure that suggests a male version of Peggy Cass's Agnes Gooch in ''Auntie Mame.'' It's a cartoon, you think at first; he won't be able to sustain it. But he does, somehow managing to make hunched introversion into an extroverted style. Leo remains a deadpan hysteric, even as he picks up a top hat and cane to lead a bevy of Amazonian chorines through a fantasy routine in which he sees his name in lights.

That scene is a homage to ''Rose's Turn'' in ''Gypsy.'' (Ethel Merman's named is invoked in the show, though hardly in vain.) In fact, ''The Producers'' is more packed with steals and references than a deconstructionist's college term paper. For Max's marathon courting of rich old ladies, Mr. Wagner has come up with a doily of a set that spoofs the Loveland fantasy sequence in ''Follies.''

There's even a dancer-reflecting mirror à la ''Chorus Line,'' for the big Nazi numbers, which then turns into a crucial visual aid in Ms. Stroman's answer to Busby Berkeley-style formation dancing. And you can find gleefully over-the-top reworkings of the classic Ziegfeld beauty parades and the office as prison routines of ''How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.''

In like manner, Mr. Brooks's bouncy, endearingly generic melodies (given robust flesh by Glen Kelly's arrangements) keep recalling songs you know you've heard before but can't quite place. The lyrics are charmingly straightforward, joke-laden and often obscene, although they never feel remotely offensive.

There should, in fact, be plenty in ''The Producers'' to offend all sorts of people. You could start with the characterization of the effete Roger De Bris and the Village People-like artistic crew overseen by his sinuously swishy assistant (Roger Bart), who of course becomes a victim of the old ''walk this way'' gag. And then there's Ulla (Cady Huffman), the ultimate sex machine of a Swedish secretary with the requisite unpronounceable name.

But in this production, shrill stereotypes are transformed into outsize comic archetypes, recalling the prelapsarian days of ethnic and sexual humor before political correctness. And that the jokes are often so hoary (an African-American policeman is, of course, ''black Irish'') only adds to the feeling of a buoyant comic free-for-all, an American answer to commedia dell'arte.

Mr. Bart, Ms. Huffman and Mr. Oscar (who does a German beer-garden number that crosses the Führer with Al Jolson) are all wonderfully enjoyable company. And Mr. Beach's Roger, who winds up filling in for the original Adolf (he breaks a leg, natch) on the opening night of ''Springtime,'' becomes every aging crooner who played the Palace rolled into one brilliantly mismatched package.

It seems inevitable that a show that keeps trying to top itself is eventually going to hit the ceiling. And after the ''Springtime for Hitler'' musical-within-the-musical sequence, which fulfills one's wildest expectations, ''The Producers'' can't really get any bigger, though it works hard at attempting it. But there are always the diverting presences of Mr. Lane and Mr. Broderick, who have the most dynamic stage chemistry since Natasha Richardson met Liam Neeson in ''Anna Christie.''

Really, the only thing to lament about the arrival of ''The Producers,'' aside from the impossibility of getting tickets, is the extent to which it outdoes its competition. You want vaudeville-style fantasy sequences à la ''Follies''? You want a 1950's-style musical courtship à la ''Bells Are Ringing''? Or predatory transvestites à la ''The Rocky Horror Show''?

''The Producers'' has all of these things in forms that for pure spiritedness and polish trump every one of these current revivals. Mr. Brooks has taken what could have been overblown camp into a far warmer realm in which affection always outweighs irony. Who wants coolness, anyway, when you can have such blood-quickening heat?


New York Times
04/20/2001

Variety: "The Producers"

Whether "The Producers" should be classified as a Broadway musical or a party exploding eight times a week at the St. James Theater can be debated. However you choose to describe it, the show is a rip-roaring, gut-busting, rib-tickling, knee-slapping, aisle-rolling (insert your own compound adjective here) good time. This big whoopee cushion of a musical simultaneously restores its primary author, Mel Brooks -- the granddaddy of grossout humor, after all -- to his rightful place of honor in showbiz, and gives Broadway the kind of headline-making megahit it hasn't seen since a certain Disney feline came to town.

How funny is "The Producers"? Well, Robin Wagner's sets are funny; William Ivey Long's costumes are funny; Paul Huntley's wigs and hair are funny (note the tribute to the film's Zero Mostel's ghastly comb-over created for Nathan Lane); Susan Stroman's choreography is deliriously funny; the cast, from top to bottom, is funny; even the transitions between scenes and the song titles are funny ("Der Guten Tag Hop Clop," for God's sake!). Funniest of all, of course, are the book by Brooks and Thomas Meehan, and the lyrics by Brooks.

It certainly helps to start with one of the finest film comedies of all time, the 1968 picture for which Brooks won an original screenplay Oscar. The musical takes a few new (and unnecessary) detours, but it essentially tells the famous story of down-at-heels Broadway producer Max Bialystock and his can't-lose scheme to get rich by intentionally producing a megaflop, the musical "Springtime for Hitler," and heading to Rio with the investors' money.

Merely transcribed to the stage, the show probably would be successful: The material is inherently terrific. But Brooks and his collaborators go further, capitalizing on the new medium in ways that add immensely to its appeal. Jokes older than Brooks' 2,000-year-old man are inserted into the proceedings like cloves on a holiday ham (when a mincing queen turns to somebody and says, "Walk this way," you know what's coming). But the theatrical medium lets the performers offer them up with a grimace or a wink that receives happy acknowledgment from an irony-sated audience hungry for good, old-fashioned bad jokes. Kidding itself as it goes along, the show also pokes happy fun at all sorts of stage conventions: "Why you move so far downstage right?" Swedish supervixen Ulla earnestly asks a retreating Leo Bloom at one point.

Brooks' score will not enter the pantheon of musical classics, but this master parodist clearly is an avid student of the Broadway musical and he knows how to structure a standard show tune. The songs' catchy simplicities are enhanced by clever visual jokes (those priceless pigeons!), percolating arrangements from Glen Kelly or the brilliant choreography of Stroman, who creates a series of giddy, increasingly inspired stage pictures culminating, of course, in the extravaganza of "Springtime for Hitler." Stroman's customary, inventive use of props pays off spectacularly throughout the evening, particularly in a mad, rhythmic romp for Max's little-old-lady investors that should not be spoiled by any further description.

The show has been expertly cast, with an array of neatly etched comic performances orbiting busily around Lane's career-topping turn as Max Bialystock. Lane's sad-sack eyes and air of desperate disgust are perfect for the frenzied, hapless Max; a master of the single, double and triple take, Lane gets to use all his shameless theatricality in this role, culminating in a strenuous act two solo number, "Betrayal," in which he speedily recaps the entire show in about three minutes of music. (Like some other diversions the show takes in a padded-feeling second act, this number is strictly unnecessary, but it's still fun.)

Matthew Broderick will have a tougher time winning over audiences enamored of the inimitable Gene Wilder's bigscreen take on Bloom, the milquetoast accountant Max corrals into joining his scheme. His performance is fresh and delightful when he's dancing and prancing in semi-awkward bliss at the prospect of producing fame or a sexual liaison with the luscious Ulla, but Broderick is a bit self-conscious at other times -- a likable musical-comedy leading man, he's not really the natural clown for which the role seems to call.

There is plenty of clowning elsewhere, in any case. Offering delicious support as the pert Ulla is Cady Huffman, whose endless legs and ample chest seem possessed of independent comic instincts. Brad Oscar's Franz Liebkind, the neo-Nazi playwright and pigeon-keeper, is a big bite of comic bratwurst. Gary Beach and Roger Bart serve up a twin set of extravagantly silly gay caricatures as director Roger De Bris and his "common-law assistant" Carmen Ghia, respectively.

Beach nimbly parodies everyone from Jolson to Garland in his sprawling solo turn at the center of "Springtime for Hitler," while Bart, a Tony-winning canine in "You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown," continues to forage in the animal kingdom, playing his role as a scene-pilfering mixture of a preening Persian cat and a twitching, queer cockatoo. (This show is definitely not for the stereotype-sensitive.)

Whether it's because they're primed by word of mouth or simply starved for brassy, take-no-prisoners comedy on Broadway, audiences are devouring the show, lapping up the hoary jokes and pratfalls as if they were manna from heaven. In a way, they are. Broadway is increasingly divided between highbrow plays and bland, family-friendly musical spectacles, with the occasional highbrow musical valiantly striving to marry the two extremes, usually to leaden results.

"The Producers" is not a work of art, but it's a highly accomplished piece of lowdown entertainment. And how delicious that a show about the attempted detonation of a Broadway bomb should become the first Broadway smash of the new century.


Variety
04/19/2001

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