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'Producers' who work too hard

May 30, 2003|Reed Johnson | Times Staff Writer

What's a sign that the L.A. version of a recent Broadway smash may not be quite as outrageously, screamingly, stop-stop-you're-killin'-me funny as you've heard about the original production that wowed 'em in Manhattan? Well, maybe it's when the leading man -- Jason Alexander in this case -- makes a throwaway joke toward the end of the show that he's good, but "he's no Nathan Lane."

Now, did that ancient bit of Borscht Belt-style repartee make you laugh -- kinda, sorta? Did "The Producers," which opened Thursday at the Pantages Theatre in Hollywood, make me laugh? Yeah, kinda, sorta, especially in those lunatic moments whenever Gary Beach or Fred Applegate claimed center stage.

But both Alexander and the show as a whole might be much, much funnier if that line about Lane didn't have the uncomfortable ring of truth. What makes Alexander's self-subverting gag almost cruel is that he and the rest of this production's cast are so desperately eager to please that they practically French kiss the front row. Going over-the-top on an over-the-top show like "The Producers" takes some doing, but director-choreographer Susan Stroman and company seem ready, willing and, alas, able to scale that Everest eight times a week through January.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday June 07, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 44 words Type of Material: Correction
"The Producers" review -- The review of "The Producers" in the May 30 Calendar gave as an example of stars in Broadway musicals "Liza in 'Cabaret.' " Liza Minnelli was the star of the film version but was not in the production on Broadway.

Having not seen the original Broadway run of "The Producers," starring Lane and Matthew Broderick, I can only compare this version to the iconic Mel Brooks film comedy that inspired it, as well as to the marketing pitches enticing people to shell out for seats at up to 95 bucks a pop. As it stands -- and by no means solely because of the underdeveloped performances of its ordinarily superlative lead duo, Alexander and Martin Short -- "The Producers," in its current L.A. incarnation, may become this year's version of "Rent," another Times Square darling that lost something of its reputed bite and charm during the long cross-country haul.

Now, before you fire off that e-mail cursing me for preempting your $200 night out (plus dinner, parking and baby-sitting fees), please take note that I arrived at Hollywood and Vine fully prepared to chortle my keister off. It's been a very long time since the American musical theater has seen a phenomenon like "The Producers," Brooks' singing, dancing, money-minting adaptation of his 1968 cult classic about a washed-up Broadway impresario, Max Bialystock, and a meek bookkeeper, Leo Bloom, who plot to rip off their investors by over-selling shares in a can't-miss musical fiasco, "Springtime for Hitler."

It seems nearly as long since the show opened on Broadway in the spring of 2001, going on to win a record 12 Tony Awards. Of course, we could all use a roll in the aisles after the last 24 months, and what better palliative for these tense times than a show that manages to turn the Third Reich into a titanic Teutonic camp-fest and the linchpin of the original Axis of Evil into a mincing, preening diva-complex-in-jackboots who seems ready to star in a solo-dictator show titled "Adolf With an 'A.' "

In the stage version, as in the movie, that classic comic send-up of Aryan supremacy and Great White Way choreography still plays like a dream, or rather like Leni Riefenstahl's worst nightmare -- "Tri-oomph! of the Will" -- and Beach, reprising his Tony-winning double-duty as the flamingly over-the-top director Roger De Bris and as a last-minute replacement to play the Fuhrer in the show-within-the-show, demonstrates why he may be the most talented man on Broadway without his name in marquee lights.

Of course, nothing makes for a great (or even a pretty good) Broadway musical like a great Broadway monster: Ethel in "Gypsy," Liza in "Cabaret," Jonathan Pryce in "Miss Saigon," etc. A recent re-viewing of Zero Mostel (opposite Gene Wilder) in the movie version of "The Producers" confirmed Mostel's genius for playing manic self-aggrandizement, and for generating a lush comic atmosphere without fogging out the other performers. It's as if he were the potentate of some distant country all his own, perhaps called Catskills-istan.

If Mostel commandeered the role of Max Bialystock, Alexander mainly cajoles it. He scowls and looks pained, conjures self-pity without the effortless air of grandiose self-importance that Mostel used to leaven his load. Laboring under what appeared to be a case of press-night hoarseness, his lines felt forced, more harangues than readings, with an accent that wavered between South Bronx and "Saturday Night Live's" Master Thespian. My fingers are crossed that in the weeks ahead a performer of Alexander's prodigious talents will get a better handle on this heroically oversized role.

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