BOOKS and CDs
LETTERS TO EDITOR
By Elyse Sommer
London Production Review
Oscar and Bart Take Over
California Production review
When Broadway's latest mated-in-theatrical-heaven Odd Couple, Nathan Lane as Max Bialystock and Matthew Broderick as Leo Bloom, find that their intentionally awful musical Springtime For Hitler is a hit they sing "What Did We Do Right?" That song best serves to highlight just a few of the things that Brooks and Company did right.
First, credit the movie that's the foundation stone for the whole winning enterprise. The jokes -- even the least subtle and most shtick-y -- remain rib ticklers. In fact, our super politically correct times have given the comic assaults on a scattershot of targets a sharper than ever satirical edge. Nazis, homosexuals, little old ladies horny enough to be shtupped out of their savings to invest in Bialystock fiascos, Irish cops and CPAs -- no one escapes. Turning a serious subject, Nazism, into a silly romp still shocks a little but almost instantly gives way to recognizing the method behind the madness. After all, who better to ridicule Hitler and the Nazis than two hilariously inept Jewish producers like Bialystock the has-been and Bloom the nebbish accountant and wannabe impresario to hatch a "creative accounting" scam for making their fortune from a sure-fire flop. The vehicle to speed them towards the road to riches is a wacky Nazi playwright's tribute to Hitler which has them singing "Oh we knew we couldn't lose, when half the audience were Jews!" But lose they do since the sure loser flip-flops into a hit.
Unlike some multi-talented show folks, Brooks was smart enough to enlist Thomas Meehan, author of the Tony Award winning Annie, to collaborate with him on the book. Whether some of the plot changes were made by Meehan, Brooks, or both -- they work to the benefit of the musical.
To give himself over to the composer-lyricist job he's long hankered after, Brooks, with the wisdom becoming his seventy-five years and the confidence of the ebullient teenager lurking inside that septuagenarian, also relinquished the director's baton. He lucked out with Susan Stroman who also serves as choreographer.
Stroman has imbued the show with countless directorial touches that tap right into the Brooksian wit. Her dance scenes never stop making us gasp at her originality and resourcefulness. As Brooks wrote The Producers as an ode to the Broadway and movie musical's glory days of glitz and glamour, Stroman has visually invigorated that ode throughout. As a result, there's much fun to be had catching all the allusions that begin with the rip-roaring Fiddler on the Roof "King of Broadway" opening -- sort of like picking out all the Ninas in Al Hirshfeld's cartoons in the New York Times. (If you don't get all the referential stuff, you'll have a grand old time anyway).
At one point, the director even tips her trademark baseball cap to her own Contact . It's a whimsical moment that has one member of Max's shtupped old lady brigade swinging off stage within a longer spoof of the Loveland episode of Stephen Sondheim's Follies. To further illustrate the synergy between Stroman and Brooks, there are the posters of past shows in Max's office and the neon-lit signs of his shows-to-come at the end to underscore the Brooksian penchant for broad and often scatological humor ( Posters advertisingThe Breaking Wind and This Too Shall Pass; neons blazing with titles like High Button Jews, Death of a Salesman in Ice, She Shtupped to Conquer and South Passaic).
Broderick's first big big solo, "I Want to Be A Producer", is one of half a dozen numbers which add minutes to the production because the audience applause (justified!) has to die down before the show can go on. It's also one of the wittiest production numbers, with a string of lamé-clad showgirls popping out of the file cabinets of a Dickensian accounting office. Lane, in a drop-dead solo near the end ("Betrayed") sums up everything that has gone before in less time than it takes to boil a three-minute egg.
Gary Beach as a the cross-dressing director Roger De Bris and Roger Bart as his mincing "common-law assistant" Carmen Ghia are another perfectly matched couple, each all the way over the top. When the Springtime For Hitler lead (Brad Oscar, another cast standout who is also the nutty Nazi playwright Frank Liebkind) literally breaks a leg De Bris, shades of the ingenue in Forty-Second Street, must step into the Fuehrer's boots. He does so with diva-like aplomb after Carmen loyally and riotously urges him on with "You're going out there a silly hysterical queen and you're coming back a great big passing-for-straight Broadway star!"
The expansion of the role of Ulla, the sexy Swede, is another example of things done right. Cady Huffman who resembles all the long-legged ladies whose yellow tresses made peroxide famous, is terrific as secretary, show participant and the girl who makes Leo toss out his little blue Linus blanket. My only complaint is that hair designer Paul untley didn't give her a Ginger Rogers pageboy for the charming "Face" sequence in which she and Leo do a Fred and Ginger routine during which, in another stroke-of-Stroman-ingenuity, their faces are photo montaged all over the walls of Max's office.
The contribution of the designers to the sum of the show's superbly directed and acted parts is immeasurable. Robin Wagner's multitude of sets are drolly on the mark. William Ivey Long's costumes range from blissful elegance to kitschy splendor (e.g. Roger De Bris in a silvery Chrysler building of a ballgown and headdress). Peter Kaczorowski lighting adds to the overall craftsmanship. The much-anticipated "Springtime For Hitler" scene embodies everything that's right about the show. Dancing storm troopers, live and robotic, form a swastika. Busby Berkeley style show girls enter bedecked with beer steins, wursts and pretzels . . lyrics like "Don't be stupid / Be a smarty / Come and join the Nazi party!" almost get drowned in laughter. There's even a sly Alfred Hitchcock moment, via the lip-synched lines spoken by the voice of Mel Brooks. Maybe the producers who upped the ante for the by now unattainable tickets, could allow a few of King Mel's admirers without a C-note to spare to buy cut-rate rights to stand at the rear for that monster show stopper.
"It's good to be a king" sings Max. And who should know better than the author, King Mel of Broadway. May this younger than springtime king reign until he can have his own 2000 year old man birthday party.
The Producers: Show CD -- no time wasted recording the cast. The CD promises to be as big a hit as the show and isn't nearly as hard to get as tickets.
The Producers: The1968 Movie with Zero Mostel & Gene Wilder-- still a golden oldie hit! Now, a fascinating case study on how a hit movie can grow and change (but into a mega-hit musical.
For a visit with the "king" himself The Complete 2000 Year Old Man [BOX SET] Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner . . . Audio Cassette version
The 2000 Year Old Man In The Year 2000 -- a less costly visit with tummlers Brooks and Reiner.
Nathan Lane's wonderful curvy expression is pervasively endearing and his rounded singing voice is an unexpected pleasure as it fills the Theatre Royal with perfect pitch in his opening number, "The King of Broadway". I get the impresson that this intelligent actor is continually refining his comic part, keeping himself fresh with facial asides, wry looks, private jokes, all designed to win us over with his ebullient charm. Lee Evans by contrast is less relaxed but that hesitancy adds to his characterisation. Looking somewhat like a cross eyed Sir Ian McKellan with his protruding ears and tousled curly hair, we can see the vulnerability of the child within who needs his blue security blanket.
Susan Stroman is still credited as the director and choreographer. She has imported the girl in the yellow dress, Leigh Zimmerman from her musical Contact, as Ulla the seriously Swedish femme fatale with a penchant for herrings and seduction of nerdy accountants. The cast which has been assembled to support Nathan Lane's Max Bialystock and Lee Evans' Leo Bloom for the Drury Lane production is largely British. Conleth Hill, the originator of one of the Stones in his Pockets roles and recently co-starring in Frayn's Democracy is the camp director Roger de Bris and the popular TV comedian James Dreyfus plays his delightful sidekick Carmen Ghia. I suspect both these actors may find themselves in larger roles come February. Nicolas Colicos plays Franz, the Nazi author of the musical within the musical and is almost upstaged by his caged collection of homing Nazi saluting pigeons. Several of the British audience were wearing Franz's helmet the night I saw The Producers, a homage to the great Mr Brooks.
The Producers is such a welcome addition to the London scene, especially now to combat the dark days and chill of November. I cannot think of a lighter, more pleasurable evening in the theatre and one which I can heartily recommend to all. This is the best show in London!
The London Cast: Nathan Lane, Lee Evans, Conleth Hill, Leigh Zimmerman, James Dreyfus and Nicolas Colicos
With: Kenneth Avery-Clark, Stephen Carlile, Hadrian Delacey, Kate Graham, Amanda Minihan, Sherrie Pennington, Simon Adkins, Caroline Barnes, Suzanne Bullock, Leigh Constantine, Lisa Donmall, Cory English, Christian Gibson, James Gray, Kelly Homewood, David Hulston, James Le Feuvre, Rachel McDowall, Gavin Staplehurst, Luzahnn Taylor, Emma Tunmore, Desi Valentine Venue: Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, London WC2 (Tube: Covent Garden)
Box Office: 0870 890 1109
Booking to 23rd April 2006.
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 10th November 2004 performance
Oscar and Bart Reprise their Previous Takeovers as he Producers
Some shows thrive even after the original stars leave and replacements take over. Cabaret, Cicago Cats, Les Miserables, Phantom of the Opera are prime examples of the show as a gold-plated hit for any number of replacement casts. Other shows like The Boy From Oz survive and prosper strictly because of their star. Consequently, that show will close down during Hugh Jackman's upcoming vacation. But while The Producers has continued to prosper on Broadway as well as elsewhere, it's never been quite the blazing hot ticket it was during Broderick and Lane's tenure. And so the stars have returned-- albeit for a strictly limited run from December 30th to April 4th.
It should be noted, that adding to the Broderick/Lane chemistry, Garry Beach is back as the oh so gay director Roger DeBris and so is Roger Bart as his super swishy assistant Carmen Ghia.
Hollywood Boulevard was blocked off to make way for Broadway as The Producers opened its six-month run at the gorgeous old Pantages Theatre, re-gilded for The Lion King. Also re-gilded are the stars of The Producers.
Martin Short is a delicious Leo Bloom with a beautiful wistful voice, playing off Jason Alexander as a fierce high-energy Max Bialystock. Short makes a stirring anthem of his opening number," I Wanna Be A Producer." He also makes the most of his opportunities as the character with more arc and more changes. Alexander gets his laughs but one regrets the lost opportunity to see what the superb Henry Goodman would have done with Max.O nly Gary Beach re-creates his original role as director/diva Roger De Bris. Josh Prince puts an incredible swivel in swish in his hilariously dainty choreography of Carmen Ghia, Roger's assistant. Statuesque Angie Schworer does Ulla proud.
Composer/creator Mel Brooks' theatrical homages are too numerous to mention but among those most familiar to Hollywood audiences will be the Busby Berkeley number embedded (thank you, George Dubya) in the "Springtime for Hitler" number, as well as the Cabaret and Ziegfeld Follies allusions. In her first Los Angeles production since Contact at the Music Center, Susan Stroman validates her reputation as one of the most inventive, uproarious and deft director/choreographer in the game.
The 1959 evening gowns on the Broadway theatre-goers and the 11 o'clock ballad "Til Him" were a welcome reminder of the melodious elegance of the period and a personal homage to the astuteness of that 75-year-old wunderkind Mel Brooks!
All creative team credits are the same as the New York production (per reviews below this box) Cast: Jason Alexander (Max), Martin Short (Leo), Fred Applegate (Franz Liebind), Josh Prince (Carmen Ghia), Gary Beach (Roger De Bris). Angie Schworer (Ulla).
Dates: May 2, 2003-January 4, 2004. Opening night: May 29, 2003.
Pantages Theatre, 6233 Hollywood Blvd., Los Angeles, ph: (213) 365-3500.
Reviewed by Laura Hitchcock on May 28.
Springtime 2003 for The Producers
Is Roger Bart's Bloom Blooming?
Is Brad Oscar As Good a Producer As He Was a Nazi?
Does the Show Feel Younger Than Springtime?
Roger Bart who was a delectably swishy Carmen Ghia when I first saw The Producers, is as winning a Leo Bloom as you could hope for. Like Matthew Broderick, who originated the role, he is an ideal nebbish breaking out of a ledger-ruled non-life. He scores as actor singer and dancer -- from the moment he stumbles into the office of the down on his luck Max Bialystock, to his squeaky "I Want to Be a Producer" showstopper, to his terrific Ginger Rogers/Fred Astaire dream sequence with the long-legged blonde bombshell Ulla.
Brad Oscar is another case of promotion from within as Max Bialystock. The bald-headed, big-voiced Cinderella went from Franz Liebkind understudy in Chicago to taking full charge of the part on Broadway. Besides winning a Tony as Franz he went on for Lane often enough to step in when Henry Goodman was ignominiously fired. Having seen Goodman in Tartuffe I'm sorry I missed seeing his Max which was undoubtedly a distinct departure from Lane's original performance. Oscar is more of a Nathan-like Max even though he's more physically imposing and less of a teddy bear. His singing, not so incidentally, is excellent and his big prison number, "Betrayal" is a triumph.
Those who, like me, saw the current B & B (Bialystock & Bloom) in their original roles will get a kick out of seeing them interact with the actors who took over the roles of Carmen (Bert Musgrove) and Franz (John Tracey Egan). Bart's amazed wonder at the the mincing excess of his erstwhile Toni-winning part is especially amusing.
Undoubtedly there will be other Oscars and Maxes along with occasional ensemble replacements. So far most of the key cast members like Cady Hoffman, the sexy Ulla, and Gary Beach, the over-the-top Roger De Bris are still on board. However, the show is in and of itself the reason for shelling out top Broadway dollar to see it. With its mind-boggling array of sets, dazzlingly inventive dance numbers and costumes, and witty songs, The Producers, no matter who dons the Bialystock and Bloom hats, is an indestructible entertainment.