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Theater Review

Spring(time) Forward

The stage version of the classic Mel Brooks film 'The Producers' arrives on Broadway full of lowbrow high jinks and a crackling Nathan Lane.

April 20, 2001|MICHAEL PHILLIPS | TIMES THEATER CRITIC

Brooks' simple melodies--"rude" is his word for them, and reportedly, Brooks composes by humming while someone else transcribes--take you back to the milieu of '50s variety shows, such as Broadway's "New Faces of 1952" or TV's "Your Show of Shows." (Brooks wrote for both.) When Lane's Max lapses into doggerel Yiddish amid that terrific intro, "The King of Broadway," it's like hearing a Sid Caesar master class in dialects, compressed into seven or eight seconds.

Brooks isn't above stealing from himself, not to mention anybody else. "The King of Broadway" sounds a great deal like Brooks' "Hope for the Best, Expect the Worst" from his 1970 film "The Twelve Chairs." A lot of the "Producers" score glides in one ear and out the other ("I Wanna Be a Producer," " 'Til Him," even Lane's climactic lament, "Betrayed"). But arranger Glen Kelly and orchestrator Doug Besterman have done wonders in terms of fleshing out Brooks' efforts.

Rather than backing away from the dated, groan-inducing bits from the movie, Brooks and Meehan fly headlong into anything, anything that may (or may not) have worked for Brooks over the last 50 years. Brooks has scored with Hun-zapoppin' show tunes before, notably in "Blazing Saddles" with "I'm Tired." Here, we get a little diversion featuring singing pigeons with little Nazi armbands giving their pal Liebkind (Oscar) the one-wing salute in "Der Guten Tag Hop Clog"--"sort of a Nazi hoedown," in Max's words.

We're handed some of the most risible gay stereotypes since Al Pacino went "Cruising," fully embraced and mostly redeemed by Beach's De Bris and Bart's Carmen Ghia. Though Ulla (Huffman) is given more to do than in the movie, she's basically around for the purposes of cleavage, and may well provoke the formation of a Swedish Bombshell Anti-Defamation League. The Swedes can get in line, right behind the AARP, ACT UP and the African American Cops With Irish Brogues support group.

"The Producers" has a million of 'em. Actually it has 2 million, when 1.5 million would've been better. I could do without the self-referential gags (Brooks' "History of the World" line, "It's good to be the king"), the Village People bit (in '59?), the Woody Allen routine about someone else's childhood memory. And considering it tried out in Chicago, to huge success, it's surprising Stroman, Brooks and company didn't do more to clean up the final half-hour. Post-"Springtime" there's a looking-for-an-ending quality.

Little matter. For weeks now "The Producers" has had the lucky aura of a preordained hit. No little thanks to Lane's inexhaustible but never exhausting star turn, and Broderick's solid back-court support, Der Fuhrer is indeed, as one Brooks lyric so aptly describes, causing a furor.

*

* "The Producers," St. James Theatre, 246 W. 44th St., New York City. $30-$90. (212) 239-6200.

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