More than four years have passed since this shameless celebration of all things crass knocked the New York theater on its arse. After too many years dominated by stodgy, constipated musicals from abroad, The Producers brashly proclaimed that the loud, brassy, in-your-face American musical comedy was back. Why does a show that strives so mightily to offend everyone work so well? Primarily because although Mel Brooks is the proverbial child who never grew up, he never grew up loving musicals. This show is a love letter to Broadway, scrawled in bold colors.
Way back in 1962, Brooks scripted a flop musical called All American. He then drew on that unhappy experience when he wrote and directed The Producers, the now-classic movie about Max Bialystock's attempt to make a whopping profit by staging a surefire flop. The movie jump-started Brooks' Hollywood career. What sweet irony it must have been when, nearly 40 years later, he returned to Broadway with a mega-smash.
Anyone who visits the Fox Theatre this week will receive an inkling as to why the show is such a triumph. To start with, it sounds great. According to the playbill, this touring company only carries a drummer, which means that all the other musicians must be local. They are delivering a rich, full, fabulous sound. The show also looks great. There's so much to see here: little old ladies trampolining into the wings, neo-Nazi pigeons, dancing pillows, water fountains that dispense Champagne, filing cabinets that dispense statuesque chorus girls. The lighting design is unabashedly witty. How often are lights funny? They are here. Although the songs are hardly memorable (this, despite the fact that some sound as if you've heard them before), the libretto is quintessential Brooks, which is to say raunchy and risqué.
In the best sense of the phrase, The Producers is a personality-driven musical. It harkens back to an era when audiences expected to see larger-than-life personalities portraying larger-than-life roles. Some of these current performers are terrific. Ida Leigh Curtis' eye-popping, dress-stretching Ulla? Ul-la-la! Bill Nolte portrays with outrageous brio the crazy neo-Nazi playwright. As Leo Bloom, the pitiable accountant who's terrified of life, Andy Taylor is sweetly charming. (To watch Taylor is to envision how Conan O'Brien might fare as Leo.)
Now the problems begin. An actor portraying Max Bialystock must walk a tightwire: He has to be able to play to the audience without catering to it. Max is shady, immoral, unethical -- yet we love him. But the audience must volunteer the loving; the actor can't beg for it. Bob Amaral, rather like a social director at a summer resort, craves affection every time he opens his mouth. Even his eyes ask you to love him.
At least Amaral is funny and knows where his punch lines are. The kindest thing one can say about Stuart Marland in the pivotal role of cross-dressing director Roger De Bris is that he is miscast. Marland is not funny. The Producers spends two hours building to the outrageous "Springtime for Hitler" production number, of which Marland is the focus. Yet on opening night not a single laugh was heard during that entire extravaganza. It was chilling to realize that so much craft, imagination and money had been lavished to so little effect.
So what's a viewer to do? If you've never seen The Producers, the show is a not-to-be-missed phenomenon. But if you have seen it, you might want to consider savoring the memories -- and saving your money for tickets to Wicked. November is not that far away.