The Producers

Jason Alexander and Martin Shortin The Producers(Photo © Paul Kolnik)
Jason Alexander and Martin Short
in The Producers
(Photo © Paul Kolnik)

What’s the most shocking thing about a Broadway musical that includes a Nazi speaking Yiddish, a nun dancing the hora, and a pigeon saluting “Sieg Heil?” The fact that Mel Brooks’ The Producers, the musical in which all this is contained, has been surpassed by the crass poor taste exhibited in today’s society and therefore satisfies even the conservative, blue-haired crowd. Though it’s an entertaining outing filled with laughs, Brooks’s stage musical version of his movie classic — co-written with Thomas Meehan — feels a bit hollow and forced.

Max Bialystock (Jason Alexander) is the laughingstock of the Great White Way. He has just produced the latest in his long line of flops, Funny Boy, a musical version of Hamlet wherein everyone in the cast dies by the end of the play. (One critic quips “They were the lucky ones.”) His scruples long gone, Max spends his days hustling little old ladies for cash. When Leo Bloom, a mousy accountant (Martin Short), innocuously suggests a scam that could net two million dollars, Max pounces. What Leo proposes as an accounting theory — if you raise much more money that a show costs and the show then flops, no one at the IRS will care to check the books — Max deems a goldmine.

The scheme involves seeking out the worst Broadway play ever, one guaranteed to close on opening night. Max and Leo find such fare in the hands of ex-Nazi Franz Liebkind (the hysterically funny Fred Applegate), who has written Springtime for Hitler: A Gay Romp with Adolf and Eva in Berchtesgaden in homage to his beloved Führer. To helm this disaster, Max hires the worst director in New York, the flamboyant Roger DeBris (Gary Beach, who won a Tony for this performance). DeBris and his “common law assistant” Carmen Ghia (Josh Prince) prepare auditions for a Hitler who can sing, dance, and camp. With a horrible script, a dreadful cast, and a vile director, Springtime For Hitler opens on Broadway. Max and Leo are geared for a flop, the key to their success — but things turn out rather differently than they expect.

The Producers is a funny musical filled with borscht belt shtick and snappy musical numbers. But with 12 Tony wins and an avalanche of hype, it doesn’t satisfy all the anticipation that has been built up. Brooks’s songs are conventional for the most part, and the satire has been done better — particularly in the 1968 film version. The first act runs too long and lacks punch.

It’s in the second act, with the infamous “Springtime For Hitler” number showcasing a chorus line of S.S. officers forming swastikas, that The Producers delivers. Also from the movie, “Prisoners of Love” is a pleasing number made more alluring by scantily clad dancing girls swinging balls and chains. Of the new songs, “Betrayed” — sung by Max in his prison cell — contains naughty, witty lines such as “Then you ran to Rio, and you’re safely out of reach. I’m behind these bars, you’re banging Ulla on the beach!” Brooks, at his most clever, has Max sum up the entire show in a 60-second recap during this number.

The actors are entertaining but never function as one entity. Alexander and Short are engaging as the slimy producer and his nebbishy sidekick, yet I found myself comparing them not to Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick (whom I unfortunately missed) but to the film’s stars, Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder — especially in their opening scene together. Lifted word for word from the film script, this scene lacks the comic timing and rapid-fire pacing of the dialogue that made Mostel and Wilder so brilliant.

Angie Schworer as Ulla(Photo © Paul Kolnik)
Angie Schworer as Ulla
(Photo © Paul Kolnik)

Like the rest of the show, Alexander and Short hit their stride in the zesty second act. Alexander’s hoarse sound (I’ve read that he’s getting over a cold) actually makes his rendition of “Betrayed” all the more comical. Although Short eschewed his usual mannerisms in his Tony-winning role in Little Me, here he unfortunately resorts to Ed Grimley’s happy dance whenever possible. It’s a constant reminder that we’re watching Martin Short, not Leo Bloom. When the actor avoids such silliness, his charm shines through in one of the show’s very few sympathetic roles.

Beach and Prince portray a far-from-humanized gay couple that would make Quentin Crisp and Harvey Fierstein look butch, yet they are too over-the-top to truly offend anyone. When Beach’s character takes over as Hitler in “Springtime For Hitler,” he savagely skewers the monster by mocking him with his frilly demeanor. Applegate almost walks away with the show, singing and dancing his German tunes with vigor; his big number “Haben sie gehört das Deutsche band?” evokes Eddie Cantor or Al Jolson. (Ironic for a Nazi to imitate the style of a Jew.) He would steal the show if Angie Schworer as the Swedish bombshell, Ulla, weren’t such a delight. Sashaying in a tight skirt, she embodies raw sexuality. Whether brutalizing the English language with her exaggerated accent or belting out her showstopper “When You Got It, Flaunt It,” Schworer is a star in every sense of the word.

The members of the ensemble revel in Susan Stroman’s inventive choreography — a mixture of Busby Berkeley, Florenz Ziegfeld, and Jewish folk dancing — as they play showgirls, leaping old ladies in walkers, accountants, etc.

At intermission, I wondered if I had walked into the wrong theater, but everything fell into place after the entr’acte: personas clicked, comic zingers were unleashed, and my toes finally began tapping. Even if The Producers is not the second coming as New York proclaimed, I was suckered into the wacky world of Brooks and I enjoyed the trip.

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The Producers

Closed: January 4, 2004