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UP FRONT | THEATER REVIEW

A big guy in a very big dress

David Hasselhoff gets glittery top billing in Vegas' lax `Producers.'

February 22, 2007|Charles McNulty | Times Staff Writer

Las Vegas — ANOTHER major legit opening on the Strip, another blockbuster delivered with a big fat wink.

"The Producers," now at Paris Las Vegas, is the latest Broadway bonanza to get the Sin City treatment. Squashed to an intermission-less 95 minutes, this middling remount wrings whatever it can out of its name-brand goods while introducing a kitschy gimmick that gives the whole experience a Vegas difference.

Just as "Phantom -- The Las Vegas Spectacular" adds a spanking new mega-dollar chandelier with UFO-like properties to Andrew Lloyd Webber's war horse, the Las Vegas "Producers" takes Mel Brooks' giddy musical theater shtick-fest and adds -- drum roll, please -- David Hasselhoff in drag.

Having only channel-surfed past "Baywatch" and "Knight Rider," I arrived with no preconceived ideas about Hasselhoff, whose lengthy playbill bio touts his place in the Guinness Book of World Records as "The Most Watched TV Star in the World."

Like McDonald's, he has apparently served billions, and not just on the small screen. He's more, so much more, than a garden-variety triple threat -- a global recording artist who has performed atop the Berlin Wall, a musical-theater dynamo with Broadway and West End credits (if not cred) and an author who has finally found time to pen his memoirs now that his TV shows are in syndication on every habitable continent. Should I even mention his sideline on "America's Got Talent"?

But don't let his top billing in "The Producers" fool you: "The Hoff," as he likes to be called, isn't playing Max Bialystock or Leo Bloom, the titular theatrical swindlers originated by Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder in Brooks' classic 1968 movie and then memorably incarnated on Broadway by Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick in the musical version (which sadly didn't translate so well on screen). Instead, in what's surely intended to be a casting coup, Hasselhoff appears in the flaming role of Roger DeBris. He's the cross-dressing director who Max and Leo (played rather forgettably here by Brad Oscar and Larry Raben) believe is the absolute bottom of the barrel and therefore the perfect choice for their sure-to-flop new show, which they hope will earn them millions through a little "creative accounting."

Making his grand entrance in a gown that's like something Linda Evans picked up at the Big and Tall Men's Shop, Hasselhoff seems to be champing at the bit to cut loose.

The sight of this strapping fellow practically sprinkling pixie dust is incongruously amusing -- akin to a police officer swishing around onstage at a Benevolent Society benefit.

But ultimately the joke has less to do with the quality of his mincing than the sheer daring of his mincing at all. "Dave, buddy, you're killing me -- now knock it off!"

Hasselhoff is actually funnier when his character is forced to step in for an injured actor as the Fuhrer in "Springtime for Hitler," the musical within the musical that Max and Leo snare from Nazi playwright Franz Liebkind (Fred Applegate, in one of the livelier re-creations) as their can't-win vehicle. Hasselhoff's performance is meant to be laughingly awful (check), but the humor never reaches the breathless heights of Gary Beach's Tony-winning turn as DeBris, and, as with the production overall, the sense is of a Xerox of a once boldly colored cartoon.

Oscar, the show's original Franz Liebkind and one of the more favorably reviewed replacements for Lane (talk about impossible acts to follow) on Broadway, is an ace cutup, but he's not at his fizziest here. Perhaps it's the strain of having to work twice as hard to compensate for a Leo Bloom who is as bland as your grandmother's boiled chicken. Raben physically resembles Martin Short (who played Leo at the Pantages) yet offers none of his flights of infectious imbecility. As a team, Oscar and Raben seem to bore each other. They're not so much schnorrers as snorers.

Holding up better are the sight gags (particularly those perpetrated by William Ivey Long's Deutschland costumes, with their dangling knockwursts and pretzels) and director Susan Stroman's vibrant choreography (the chorus numbers still have loads of pop), which sends up musicals from "Fiddler on the Roof" to "A Chorus Line."

BUT with the exception of the inspired vaudevillian antics of Applegate, the supporting players aren't able to detonate Brooks' hoary yet indisputably hilarious TNT. We smile at Leigh Zimmerman as the Swedish sexpot Ulla and Richard Affannato as the prancing Carmen Ghia (Roger DeBris' "common law assistant"), yet their clowning rarely elicits a chortling bang.

All is not lost, however. Yes, the acting is mostly unexceptional, and Brooks and Thomas Meehan's condensed book stumbles in the final stretch. Yet "The Producers" is still a more solid production than last year's short-lived "Hairspray" and should stick around for a longer run.

If it doesn't, it's not because these kinds of shows can't compete against Elton, Celine and the other compulsive entertainments on tap. The problem is the uninspired way they've been reanimated.

The Hoff can be counted on to bring in the crowds. Yet even money-hungry producers like Bialystock and Bloom would have to recognize that he won't be able to keep them from wishing they were getting the real theatrical deal.

charles.mcnulty@latimes.com

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