Springtime for Brooks

by Anne Marie Welsh | Jun 6, 2001
Springtime for Brooks NEW YORK - In a rare, quiet moment toward the end of "The Producers," accountant-turned-impresario Leo Bloom lies on his office floor, covering his head with a pillow and whining: "No way out. No way out." To which, in a typically perverse and delightful inversion, his rapacious partner Max Bialystock responds with a musical lament: "Where did we go right?"

Well, Bialy, you and your creator, Mel Brooks, did just about everything right in this manic whirlwind of a musical now the toast of Broadway. Based on his 1968 cult film, with Los Angeles and national tour productions already in the works, "The Producers" may prove the career topper for the 74-year-old Brooks, whose credits form a shelf-long encyclopedia of antic American entertainment from vaudeville, Catskill clubs and Yiddish shtick, to golden age TV gag-writing, to the outrageous movie comedies he churned out during the `70s and `80s.

Still, success on the Great White Way was by no means assured: Brooks` last movie buzz was a decade ago, and his last Broadway show flopped 40 years back.

Somewhere along the road that led past "Blazing Saddles" and "Young Frankenstein," Brooks obviously learned plenty about the difference between stage and screen. For the musical, he hired himself as composer and lyricist, creating a surprisingly unified score. The thoroughly conventional songs - no breakthroughs here - serve the ludicrous story, revised to give Bloom a hidden desire ("I Wanna Be a Producer") and a love interest in the va-va-voom Swedish secretary Ulla. Brooks` lyrics, meanwhile, wink, groan and giggle as they stretch for the corny punch lines and multiple rhymes that make even the cast CD a laugh riot.

Brooks never met a gag he didn`t like, but, in other right moves, he hired Thomas Meehan ("Annie") to co-write the book, and the prolific and inventive Broadway baby Susan Stroman ("Contact") as his director-choreographer. They match him joke for joke, scene for scene, whipping the show into a ridiculous verbal and visual frenzy, yet keeping the story clear and the jokes on target as they merrily skewer the whole history of showbiz sentiment, the way a satyr play parodies tragedy.

At the top of a tip-top cast they placed Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick as the scheming schlemiels played in the film by libidinous Zero Mostel and recessive Gene Wilder. Though they speak many of the same lines as their movie models, Lane and Broderick are different and superb comics, here both individually and together.

Lane`s the flamboyant impresario who outdoes even himself in a mock "Les Miz" prison where he recapitulates the whole "Producers" plot in an amazing best-moments medley before the happy ending. Instead of Mostel`s dirty desperation, we get Lane`s slick showbiz panache, in perfectly timed counterpoint to Broderick`s droll, dry understatement.

In case you`ve suffered "Producers" deprivation (no way out, the movie`s everywhere on video), here`s the setup. Bialystock, who backs shows like "Breaking Wind," has just had another flop with "Funny Boy," the musical of "Hamlet." His accountant (Broderick`s Bloom, his name straight from James Joyce`s "Ulysses") shows up to audit the books and stumbles upon a possible scam: By over-capitalizing a show, a producer could bilk the investors and make more money with a flop than a hit.

Max rises to the larcenous occasion by finding the worst play, director and cast for his next gambit, and by romancing his troop of rich old ladies to fund this huckster`s dream. The play is "Springtime for Hitler," a paean to the Fuhrer by Nazi ninny Franz Liebkind (Brad Oscar, helmeted and hilarious), a loyalist who raises pigeons in Greenwich Village. Directed by the drama queen of the day, Roger de Bris (Gary Beach, fired up as this flamer), "Springtime" proves so bad it`s good, and the scoundrels face jail time, where they lighten their load and make parole with such tunes as "Sing-Sing" and the spectacular "Prisoners of Love."

Nothing`s sacred to Brooks and his cohort Stroman. "The Producers" clears the air of political correctness and pushes every stereotype to its limit. Old ladies, sexed-up by the check-seeking Bialy, tap dance with their walkers and tumble on trampolines in the "Follies" sendup "Little Old Lady Land." Here, as often during the evening, the stage show turns elements of the remarkably short (and now and again distasteful) film into fah-bulous production numbers.

Everything`s of a piece: William Ivey Long`s costumes share the can-you-top-this spirit of the show; Robin Wagner`s sets slide in and out as easily as Max wriggles out of jams; and the revved-up cast pumps its energy to the last row of the balcony.

Giddy with its own goofiness, "The Producers" is a throwback to the days when musical comedy meant nothing more than the liberating laughter that lets you face another day. When Lane`s Max picks up another newspaper and reads the raves that mean his awful show has backfired into a hit, he clutches his head and sings "It`s the end of our careers; it`ll run for 20 years."

Brooks` audacious musical radiates so much warmth and joy that Max`s prediction may well come true.

Book: Mel Brooks and Thomas Meehan. Music and lyrics: Mel Brooks. Director and choreographer: Susan Stroman. Set: Robin Wagner. Costumes: William Ivey Long. Lighting: Peter Kaczorowski. Sound: Steve C. Kennedy. Featured cast: Nathan Lane, Matthew Broderick, Roger Bart, Gary Beach, Cady Huffman, Brad Oscar, Madeleine Doherty, Kathy Fitzgerald, Eric Gunhus, Peter Marinos, Jennifer Smith, Ray Willis.

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Author: Anne Marie Welsh


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