ZERO HOUR IS APPROACHING

Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder inthe film version of The Producers
Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder in
the film version of The Producers
Come this Thursday, February 1, the producers of The Producers should pretty much know what they've got. That's when Mel Brooks and Thomas Meehan's musical version of Brooks' 1968 film begins previews in Chicago. Critics come in on February 18, and the reviews will be out on the 19th. Not to worry: Even a Hindenburg-type notice couldn't derail this show's success. It'll start previewing on Broadway on March 21 with an advance of $6 mil.

Director-choreographer Susan Stroman recently gave the New York press a three-song preview, sending them to their tom-toms in ecstasy. Even Michael Riedel stowed the needle and did an aria, a milestone not lost on Brooks. "This guy in the Post was very nice," he noted the next day when the raving commenced in print. "He probably sold a lot of tickets when he said, 'You know how I am: I don't like anything, and I loved this show.' "

None of the three numbers previewed, which were from Act I, echoed scenes from the much-loved movie version--a sign of things to come. Act II, the world will soon know, takes off on a whole new plot tangent dictated by the deletion of the Dick Shawn character (the dated "LSD," who played the role

Mel Brooks
Mel Brooks
of Hitler in the musical within the movie). Can you see "Roger DeBris," the world's gayest director, jumping into the part when the regularly scheduled Hitler is felled by a mishap? The day after the press preview, the company did its first full run-through for an invited audience of friends and fans. Granted their bias, but those people were carried away on clouds. The biggest laugher was one of the biggest investors: Happy Harvey Weinstein.

The cherry on top of the sundae is, of course, Nathan Lane--"Max Bialystock" to the max, fearlessly following Zero Mostel's original act. "If I let that bother me, I wouldn't get out of bed in the morning," he says. "I've been down that road before with Forum." Lane won a Tony for the Zero role in that show, which played at the St. James. The Producers, also starring Matthew Broderick and Ron Orbach, bows April 19...at the St. James.

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ZAKS POWER

It looks as though Jerry Zaks, who directed Lane in Forum, will have to get along without him when he helms the musical version (by Charles Strouse, Susan Birkenhead, and Evan Hunter) of another 1968 movie, The Night They Raided Minsky's--and the Norman Wisdom role, "Chick Williams" is one Lane would be ideal for, albeit not as ideal as his Producers gig. Zaks' work on two other Lane outings (Guys and Dolls and Laughter on the 23rd Floor) will qualify him for this Runyonesque romp in which an Amish lass turns stripper in the vintage days of New York burlesque; the project had been on hold for awhile following the death of director Mike Ockrent.

It's hard to say where Night will fall on Zaks' already log-jammed schedule. He's also set to do 45 Seconds From Broadway, a full meal that Neil Simon is whipping up for him around the Edison Coffee Shop (a.k.a. "Polish Tea Room"), and the William Finn musical version of Edna Ferber and George S. Kaufman's The Royal Family of Broadway. The latter is just lying there, awaiting the approval of Kaufman's daughter.

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MARIO AND STEVE

What price Sondheim? A big one for Mario Cantone, who did the workshop of The Producers and was offered the part of "Carmen Gia," the handmaiden of "Roger DeBris" (Gary Beach). The role went to Roger Bart, the Tony-winning "Snoopy" of the You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown revisal.

Mario Cantone
Mario Cantone
"It was upsetting that it didn't happen," Cantone admits. "I could have done it for six months on Broadway, but the producers insisted on a year commitment, and I couldn't do that." Reason: He has to be ready to go into rehearsals in August for the Roundabout revival (actually, the first Broadway production) of Sondheim's Assassins. "It's my favorite musical," says Cantone. "I went to see it three times Off-Broadway in 1990. I told Stephen Sondheim I waited three hours three times to see Assassins."

He is to play Sam Byck. "In the original workshop," Cantone notes, "it was played by Nathan Lane [whom Cantone succeeded in Love! Valour! Compassion! on Broadway]. But, when they actually did it, it was done by Lee Wilkof." Michael Hall, Becky Ann Baker, two-time Tony-winner Stephen Spinella, Lisa Loeb, John Dossett, Neil Patrick Harris and Matt McGrath--all from the revival workshop--are expected to be aboard. Joe Mantello of L! V! C! will direct the show.

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OUT OF MY DREAMS AND INTO YOUR ARMS

JoAnne Hunter celebrated her birthday Thursday night by going on for Amy Spanger opposite Kevin McCready (Hunter's hubby, who was spelling Michael Berresse) in Kiss Me, Kate....In the audience at that performance were Lauren Bacall and Dana Ivey (late of Waiting in the Wings), plus Leslie Uggams, who was checking out Brian Stokes Mitchell; he's playing her son in August Wilson's next Broadway offering, King Hedley II, which opens at the Virginia on April 16....On Sunday, Bacall celebrated the 100th birthday of her first husband, Humphrey Bogart, by showing her documentary on him at The Players' Club....A memorial service for Bacall's second husband, Jason Robards, will be held on February 26 at the Broadhurst....Robin Pogrebin, in writing up the Peter Gennaro memorial for The New York Times, said that Chita Rivera was 18 when she did West Side Story. Not to put too fine a point on it, but that would have made her 13 when she did Call Me Madam!