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The Producers

When Mel Brooks' first film, The Producers, appeared in 1968, both audiences and critics were split. Sure, there were indications of the zaniness and unrestrained hilarity that was to follow in such hits as Blazing Saddles, Spaceballs, and Young Frankenstein. And the premise was good. But for many people the comedy wasn't strong enough to turn the presence of Hitler and all that Nazi paraphernalia into a good laugh. Nevertheless, Brooks took home one Oscar, for Best Original Screenplay.

Why, then, 33 years later, with little change in the book, did The Producers sweep the Tonys, winning an unprecedented 12 awards? Simple: The addition of nearly 20 songs replete with incredible production values, and great theatrical direction and choreography, turned an inventive comedy into a polished, laugh-a-minute farce.

Even without Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick, who made, and now once again continue to make, The Producers the hottest ticket on Broadway, the musical is a runaway train packed with barrels of Borscht-belt shtick.

Photo of Lewis J. Stadlen and Alan Ruck in the first national tour of The Producers, The New Mel Brooks Musical
Lewis J. Stadlen and
Alan Ruck in the
first national tour
of The Producers,
The New Mel
Brooks Musical
Photo: Paul Kolnik
Lewis J. Stadlen, who played Max Bialystock on Broadway in-between Nathan Lane's runs, is a knockout as the Brooks-like producer who shtups old ladies to fund his awful musicals. With punch lines rolling off his tongue with the ease of a shyster lying for his client, Stadlen's bravado grabs us by the lapels and plops us down smack in the middle of a kaleidoscopic world where stage and street become indistinguishable.

Alan Ruck, who performed with Matthew Broderick in Ferris Beuller's Day Off, takes over Broderick's role of Leo Bloom, an insecure, socially awkward accountant who idolizes Max and longs to be a producer. While not possessed of Broderick's trademark Jack Benny-esque deadpan affect ("Well!"), Ruck plays his own endearing charm for all its worth, and with great effect for Leo, succeeding with Ulla, the knockout Swedish "secretary," where Max does not.

But Ulla is not your everyday simple-minded sexpot: In Charley Izabella King's eye-popping send-up, she dances and sings her way into what Bialystock and Bloom hope to be the worst musical ever, while ingratiating herself into Leo's heart and every male audience member's imagination.

There are so many memorable scenes in The Producers, it's difficult to spotlight just a few, but what makes them shine is the uncanny combination of great character work and inventive musical numbers. Between Brooks unlimited appetite for silliness, Susan Stroman's deft direction and choreography, William Ivey Longs' dazzling costumes, Robin Wagner's evocative scenery, and Peter Kaczorowski's spectacular lighting, there is no end to the show-stoppers: Dancing accountants with chorus girls spilling out of their filing cabinets, carrier pigeons flapping their wings to a German polka, a Liberace meets Howard Crabtree swishy costume extravaganza, and the centerpiece Third Reich meltdown with headdresses of beer steins and sausages.

In what has to be a satisfying irony for Brooks, The Producers has turned out to be a self-fulfilling prophesy: the success of the tasteless musical within the musical parallels the unparalleled success of the musical itself. A lot of shtick goes a long way. It runs through January 31st. 303-893-4100.

Bob Bows

 

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