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It’s time we admit it: We’re a little bipolar. Most nights, we like a challenge at the theater, sure. We like our Shakespeare and our Stoppard and our Sondheim. But sometimes, after a long week, we’re no more ambitious than the overachiever who just wants to be entertained when she sits down in her orchestra seat at Broadway’s Palace Theatre. We’re like the summer moviegoer who just wants to cheer as things freeze over with improbable dispatch, to wince and giggle as Ben Stiller takes one to the crotch, to groan at the obviousness and the schmaltz when the rich girl kisses the working-class guy in the pouring rain. We occasionally, in short, become wholehearted subscribers to the guilty-pleasure aesthetic articulated so deliciously by Julie Brown: We like ’em big and…stu-pid.
Why aren’t we guffawing along with the masses, then, now that The Producers has finally thumped its elbows into Washington’s ribs? Broadway musicals have been bigger, and they’ve certainly been stupider, but rarely have they been so unabashedly retro-verblown and so gleefully, intentionally lowbrow at once. Mel Brooks’ smash-hit rethink of his classic 1968 movie had all but the surliest critics singing its praises when it hit Broadway early in 2001.
That’s part of the problem: Three sold-out years and 12 Tony Awards later, it’s hard to have anything but oversize expectations for the “sublimely ridiculous spectacle” that is The Producers. But the story of Bialystock and Bloom, the hack producer and hapless accountant out to cash in by mounting a sure-fire flop on the Great White Way, turns out to be not much more than the extended frat-boy joke you remember from the film. We laugh at the enthusiastic vulgarity of its showbiz exhibitionism, but fitfully; we grin at the naughty lyrics and the high-kicking parade of stereotypes, but wanly. The Producers is a laugh, sure, but it’s far from a riot.
Worse: It’s far from offensive. The Nazi gags, the queer jokes, the oversexed-octogenarian sight gags, the Swedish-bombshell riffs all inspire not much more than a mild chortle. Certainly they carry no power to startle anymore, none of the transgressive thrill that came with surrendering better judgment and laughing at the film’s mad brashness. Never let it be said that Brooks’ contribution to the coarsening of American culture has been inconsiderable, but the master may have been eclipsed by his apprentices: In the age of Jackass and Van Wilder, the low-comedy stakes have most assuredly been raised.
The Producers is undeniably a slick piece of work, though. Brooks knows his Tin Pan Alley, so his songs (from the giddy “Keep It Gay” to the surprisingly tender “That Face”) are effective even when they’re merely workmanlike. Susan Stroman’s directorial touch is heavy enough on har-har gestures—the faux-Bavarian dance as Bialystock and Bloom woo the raving neo-Nazi author of the guaranteed bomb Springtime for Hitler, for instance—to feel appropriately Brooksian, but still sufficiently deft and light to allow the big set pieces to effervesce. The lyrically ludicrous foray into Little Old Lady Land, where Bialystock’s liver-spotted financial backers do a dazzling tap routine with their heavily chromed walkers, and the climactic Springtime number are the night’s two genuine triumphs, both of them mocking salutes to every tasteless chorus line ever staged—and sincere, exuberant celebrations of the old-fashioned Broadway craft that goes into the staging. Stroman’s choreography is almost always as clever as her direction (though a few gestures, including the odd bit of acrobatics, seem strangely random), and whatever dance captain Alan Bennett is earning, he deserves a raise; this is one well-drilled ensemble.
Charley Izabella King’s secretarial bombshell Ulla is a leggy delight with a hair-scaring Broadway belt; as Carmen Ghia, the “common-law assistant” to a cross-dressing director, Harry Bouvy rolls nervous-cat skittishness and affected languor into one svelte, S-shaped sketch of screaming queendom; Fred Applegate, perhaps the show’s most unprepossessing trouper, makes Teutonic pigeon-keeper and aspiring playwright Franz Liebkind a hysterically explosive little package. And it’s an unalloyed joy to see Lee Roy Reams—a gifted old theater queen playing the no-talent old theater queen hired to helm Liebkind’s musical valentine to der Führer—steal focus every time he steps into a scene.
Lewis J. Stadlen is likewise a veteran and a professional, but—there’s no getting around it—he hasn’t been able to put his own stamp on Bialystock, the character created on Broadway by Nathan Lane. The part still reeks of the originator’s trademark mannerisms (of which I’ve never been a particular fan), and Stadlen has done precious little to alter cadences that seem to have been written for Lane’s distinctive voice. There are overtones of Groucho, too, but nothing that makes you think Bialystock is just Bialystock—and so no way to engage with the character.
Thank God for Alan Ruck, whose height and bulk give him easy distance from Broadway’s schmo-size Matthew Broderick and lend extra unlikeliness to Bloom’s panicky insecurities. Ruck delivers a character whose paralyzing neuroses are hilariously his own, even if he never quite convinces anyone that Leo’s blossoming is an awakening worth cheering about.
And there’s what might be the biggest issue: The Producers, under all the stupid, is a sweet-natured story about two guys whose friendship starts as a scam and ends as a legit buddy act. Leo’s yen for Ulla notwithstanding, the show charts the courtship of Bialystock and Bloom—and if it’s going to be the smash people were killing each other to see on Broadway, there’s gotta be some pretty serious chemistry between the two leads. Ruck and Stadlen don’t quite have the right formula—which means big and stupid, for once, doesn’t add up to raucous summer fun. CP