'Producers' bowls over Broadway

Frantic, nutty - and worth the $100 ticket

The reflections that show folks see when they gaze into the mirror seem to be dominating Broadway this spring. Long-running musicals about backstage life like "Kiss Me, Kate" and "Annie Get Your Gun" have been joined by "The Producers," Mel Brooks' laughs-a-popping homage to everything politically incorrect, and the revival of Stephen Sondheim's "Follies."

The excitement generated by The Producers begins outside the St. James Theatre, where extra staff is needed to direct the nightly crowds seeking tickets. The lucky ones are those who have them.

From its audacious opening number - a takeoff of "Fiddler On the Roof" stomped out by the singing and dancing denizens of Times Square as if they were peasants in a Russian shetl - to its final scene nearly three hours later when the slightly venal but resilient partners walk off into a night-time sky aglow with signs of their future hits, "The Producers" has hardly a letup in its frantic pace. Brooks's democratic milking of society's sacred cows has the audience simultaneously laughing and shaking heads in amazement at the widespread targets of his jokes.

The musical is based on Brooks' 1968 comic film of the same name, which delivered a poke at the men who choose to make their living by shepherding scripts into Broadway shows. Brooks, who composed the music and lyrics and wrote the book with Thomas Meehan, can't resisted ratcheting up a gag, or stretching a double-entendre to triplicate. He's abetted by director-choreographer Susan Stroman's fondness for finding the physically absurd in movement: She literally has the actors bouncing off the walls, or at least the furniture.

"The Producers" tells the story of Max Bialystock, who once ruled Broadway with a string of hits but has fallen on hard times. His accomplice, Leo Bloom, the nerdiest of accountants, comes up with a scheme to bilk the little old ladies romanced by Bialystock out of their money. If the pair can mount a show so terrible that it closes on opening night, they can run off with the remaining funds. They find a musical called "Springtime for Hitler," "guaranteed to offend everyone." To their amazement and ruin, the show is a surprise hit.

The team of Brooks and Stroman is happily matched by their lead actors, Nathan Lane as Bialystock and Matthew Broderick as Bloom. Lane is fearless in his attack on the film legend of Zero Mostel as Bialystock, matching his catalogue of funny faces and range of improbable vocal exclamations.

On the night I was watching, Lane created a long sight gag over catching his hand on a prop that had Broderick biting his lip for control. No doubt, Lane's rendition of "Betrayed," the second-act patter song in which he reprises every turn of the action, will be remembered for years as the five minutes that made him a superstar.

Broderick is equally funny, creating a detailed character portrait in posture and gesture. He shows great skills as a song-and-dance man, especially winning in a goofy Fred-and-Ginger number, "That Face."

The leads are supported by the daffiest blond showgirl ever, Cady Huffman as Ulla; Brad Oscar as the pigeon-tending Nazi playwright; and Gary Beach and Roger Bart as the swishiest of gays. Beach goes on to accomplish the impossible in making a joke out of Adolf Hitler by portraying him as a simpering vaudeville has-been.

Words can't describe the nuttiness that follows, making "The Producers" a big wet puppy kiss of a show. And, yes, the pleasure costs $100 for most tickets.

Don't look here for an unbiased opinion of Follies, because the glory of its premiere production in 1971 has never faded from my memory. Sondheim's score is one of his best, studded with music and poignant lyrics that suggest the connection between a life lived in a dimming spotlight and failed expectations.

The revival by the Roundabout Theatre Company at the Belasco Theatre is the first on Broadway in 30 years. The premise is a reunion of performers from the Weismann Revues (think Ziegfeld). Sondheim interweaves past and present by setting ghosts of their former selves moving among the faded stars, who have returned for the party.

The original "Follies" was more of a spectacle than this one, directed by Matthew Warchus with a focus on the troubled marriages of Sally and Phyllis. They were fellow chorus girls on stage and roommates off stage who went on double dates with the men they eventually married, Buddy and Ben.

Rather than casting great singers, Warchus has accomplished actresses Judith Ivey and Blythe Danner in the roles of Sally and Phyllis. But they are well able to express the bittersweet meanings of their songs. Gregory Harrison as Ben and Treat Williams as Buddy play the husbands as men who betrayed their wives but found no solace in doing so. Warchus guides these four actors to the dark corners of the melodramatic plot of James Goldman's book, leaving the nostalgia for old-time theatrical traditions to the splendid older performers.

The first act is a love-fest between the veterans and the audience. Donald Saddler and Marge Champion, both in their 80s, perform as an elegant ballroom team. Polly Bergen belts out the show-stopper, "I'm Still Here," and Joan Roberts, the original Laurey in "Oklahoma" (which opened nearly 60 years ago), lends her voice to a song again.

Unfortunately, the second act's big number, "Loveland," choreographed by Kathleen Marshall, is a letdown, raucous and crude, compared to the gracious Act I.

The new musical The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (book by Ken Ludwig, music and lyrics by country songwriter Don Schlitz) is a big disappointment. Director Scott Ellis brought the most literal point of view to the assignment, leaving his imagination at the stage door.

He cast adult actors as Tom, Huck, and Becky, which presents a problem in establishing the characters' credibility as mischievous adolescents. Joshua Park as Tom and Kristen Bell as Becky are good looking but not ready to carry a big musical. Jim Poulos as Huck does manage to rise above the generally low quality of the project.

It's hard to believe 21st-century children will find much of interest to them here. Let's hope they get their hands on Mark Twain's book.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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