Through April 4 at TPAC's Jackson Hall
Yep, Mel Brooks is a genius. The extensive résumé of TV, stage and film credits says so. Now, with the success of the musical The Producers, based on his 1968 movie of the same name, Brooks has achieved something that had otherwise eluded him all his life: a Broadway blockbuster with a seemingly never-ending run. The road-show version hit Nashville last week in a gala opening and continues through this weekend.
What we have here is a large-palette laugh-fest in the old-timey Broadway musical tradition, with Brooks exploding his goofy tale of two shamelessly ambitious theatrical producers by adding songs that evoke Yiddish music hall crossed with the overtones of the great show-tune composers. Brooks has written music before (anyone remember "High Anxiety"?), and he certainly has a gift for lampooning musical styles. His lyrics are clever, too (e.g., "It was crass and it was crude / Even Goebbels would've booed"). He also has a talent for unabashed cornball puns and sight-gags, and he furthermore likes to make fart jokes, not to mention setting up minorities and ethnic groups as the butt of fairly shameless, if satirical gibes.
But is it satire? The word is defined as "a literary work in which human vice or folly is attacked through irony, derision or wit." This would be the case if Brooks' leading characters, Max Bialystock and Leo Bloom, were the targets of said attack. Instead, it is theyboth crookswho deride and mock everyone around them. So if it's satire to poke fun at addlepated ex-Nazis, African Americans, sexually desperate septuagenarians, sexy dumb females and mincing homosexual males, then The Producers is that in spades. Suffice to say that there are plenty of one-liners that evoke their share of honest laughter, and Bialystock/Bloom have opportunity enough to satirize themselves. The snickering here may come in spite of Brooks' arguably questionable assault on our sense of good taste, yet this is precisely the brand of humor the writer has commanded for yearsevoking a kind of group catharsis that allows the audience to wander gleefully into forbidden territory.
The Producers is definitely entertaining the way musicals from Broadway's Golden Era always were. It draws upon an eclectic set of imagesprimarily from Frank Loesser's Guys and Dolls and opulently indulgent Busby Berkeley stagingsand works the classic feel of the genre to the max, with dancing girls and boys, stunning lickety-split set changes, comically cliché musical arrangements, swings flying across the proscenium, wheelchairs, motorcycles and even a tap-dance number featuring a chorus line of little old ladies using their walkers for percussive effect.
The original story is tweaked only slightlythough those who remember the film might miss the spirit of the late Dick Shawn's outrageously hilarious performance as Hitler. Nevertheless, Lee Roy Reams as oh-so-gay director-turned-star Roger DeBris (get it? debris?) fills this role admirably, delivering a "sweet" and funny, show-within-the-show star turn as the führer.
Charley Izabella King displays top-flight talent as singer and dancer in the role of blond bombshell Ulla, the Bialystock/Bloom secretary. Her "When You Got It, Flaunt It" is a heavy-duty physical workout, and she nails it with the highest professional zest and moxie.
Also quite good is Fred Applegate as Franz Liebkind, former Nazi turned playwright, whose script, Springtime for Hitler, becomes the vehicle upon which the lead characters will base their success (or, rather, their failure). Applegate's a very solid singer and actor, drawing as much humor as possible out of an ultimately thankless role. Josh Prince plays Carmen Ghia, DeBris' over-the-top assistant, offering a performance that would be considered at least marginally politically incorrect in any other dramatic venue. But with Brooks already exploiting blacks, women, senior citizens, the Irish, Swedes and Germans, one wholly stereotypical homosexual character probably doesn't matter much. Prince works the gig all right, but he isn't all that funny.
Which brings us to the stars. As the manipulative, selfish Bialystock, veteran Broadway actor Lewis J. Stadlen goes all out to convince us of his misanthropy. He gets to utter most of the bilious commentary, yet he also makes his legit jokes count and sings with clarity and strength. Alan Ruck, probably best known for his role on television's Spin City, is the nebbishy Bloom, and he's Stadlen's equal in every way. In fact, Ruck is a surprisingly first-rate musical comedy performer, and he offers clear proof that actors buried in long-run sitcoms often come to those situations with versatile skills generally unknown to the TV-watching public at large.
With all its animal energy, its brashness and its wildly aggressive humor, The Producers is impressive, to be sure. The power of Brooks' personality alone, as in many of the author's films, would appear sufficient to declare it a resounding success. And yet this is not a perfect musical. The story creaks toward the end, and anyone looking for logic in some of the particulars of the Bialystock/Bloom financial scheme won't find it. After a time, there is so much folderol going on in big, brassy numbers that we have all but forgotten any notion of structure.
Merely to mention this show in the same breath as Guys and Dolls is tribute enough. But make no mistake: Frank Loesser never wrote a fart joke (he never had to), and he wedded his brilliantly clever lyrics to amazingly hummable melodies, backed by incredibly sophisticated harmonic patterns and jazz inflections. Furthermore, he wrote sensitively as readily as he wrote edgily.
There is no classic Broadway-style beauty in The Producers. But what there is in abundance is glitz, impudence, volume, devilish self-awareness and show-biz razzmatazz. Within those terms, and in light of 21st century cynicism, the show's wide acclaim and attractiveness to modern audiences make complete sense. And no serious criticism, quite frankly, could ever deflate its standing as a theatrical phenomenon.
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