Springtime in December
The Siegels predict that the film version of The Producers will be a big hit, and they are moved by Chita Rivera: The Dancer's Life.
Unlike the film version of Chicago, which was sliced and diced in the editing room, the integrity of each scene in The Producers remains intact. There are long takes that allow the actors to act, and plenty of wide shots to make it clear that it's the actual actors who are dancing, rather than doubles. What a joy to see Broderick -- from head to toe -- perform an elaborate fantasy dance routine while his character Leo Bloom's accounting office opens up into magnificent sound stage full of lights and beautiful chorus girls. It's pure movie magic.
Audience members who didn't see the original Broadway cast of The Producers won't know what they're missing in losing Brad Oscar as Franz Liebkind and Cady Huffman as Ulla. To be fair, Ferrell is ferociously funny as the kooky neo-Nazi. Thurman, on the other hand, does not have musical comedy running through her veins, but she sure looks the part of the Swedish bombshell. As a trade-off, Broadway fans should play close attention to the bit players; there are cameos by Karen Ziemba, Debra Monk, Richard Kind, Brent Barrett, Andrea Martin, and other stars of the Great White Way.
Somewhat disappointing are the film's costumes. And whereas Franz Liebkind's Nazi pigeons were a scream on stage precisely because they were mechanical, on film -- where everything can look hyper-real -- they read as fake. But that's okay. As is the case with any Mel Brooks script, there are so many gags here that if one joke doesn't work, the next 20 will slay you.
Ultimately, the film's fortunes will rest on the audience's reaction to Broderick and Nathan Lane as Leo and Max -- and it's unlikely that anyone will be disappointed. Because of the decision to cut the "King of Broadway" number, Lane doesn't get a chance to fully blossom right away, and the balance between the two characters is changed; Broderick has several standout numbers early on, allowing him to dominate the first half of the film with a performance that borders on comic genius. Only with Lane's tour-de-force rendition of "Betrayed" near the end of the movie does he finally achieve equal status. But balance be damned; these two are wonderful together.
With the opening of The Producers, it's springtime in December for Mel Brooks. Here is one legend who really does get the last laugh. (And we mean that literally; stay through the end credits to see for yourself!)
Chita Rivera is 72 years old and has 16 pins in one of her legs. The very fact that she's ambulatory, let alone dancing, is amazing. Her new Broadway show Chita Rivera: A Dancer's Life is at its best when it remains simple and direct.
Like a Bob Fosse dance routine, the production makes its essential points in small, sharp moments, as when the star reveals her love affair with Sammy Davis, Jr. or when she re-enacts her audition with Leonard Bernstein for her breakthrough role of Anita in West Side Story. One wishes that the show were a bit more revealing, but we'll take what we can get.
Chita embodies an extraordinary musical theater legacy and generously shares her success with her mentors, teachers, choreographers, and fellow performers; her ghost dance with Gwen Verdon is elegant and touching. There is much that might have been done to make the evening brighter and a little more satisfying. We'd have liked a better book than the one that Terrence McNally has come up with, for example, and at least one costume change for Chita. Still, when all is said and done, this great star holds the stage, our attention, and our allegiance. She is living history. So go!