When Mel Brooks turned his 1968 film The Producers into a smash hit Broadway musical in 2000, the only reasonable response was: “What took him so long?”
It’s not necessarily that The Producers screamed out for a musical treatment, though the “Springtime for Hitler” production number hinted at the potential. It’s simply that throughout a show-biz career spanning half a century, Brooks has seemed like a guy destined to play to the balcony. Sure, he found success both on television (as a writer and co-creator of Get Smart!) and film (Blazing Saddles, Young Frankenstein). But even then he seemed like a Great White Way showman bursting to get out—an entertainer with the rim-shot sensibilities of a born vaudevillian, and a tunesmith who has always penned his own films’ snappiest ditties (the Oscar-nominated Blazing Saddles theme song; “The Inquisition” from History of the World, Part 1). And as his filmmaking career disintegrated in the mid-’90s into numbingly awful stuff like Dracula: Dead and Loving It, he perhaps saw the gotta-sing, gotta-dance excuse he needed.
The touring company production of The Producers currently running at the Capitol Theatre showcases the dazzlingly goofy show that took Broadway by storm, with all its Mel Brooksian elements intact. Shifting the time frame from the film’s late 1960s to 1959, the musical retains the premise of down-on-his-luck Broadway producer Max Bialystock (Bob Amaral) trying to implement a scheme accidentally stumbled upon by accountant Leo Bloom: Get rich by finding a sure-fire flop of a play, and raise more money than it costs to produce. And such a flop Bialystock and Bloom are convinced they’ve found—a sympathetic ode to Der FÃ¼hrer by Nazi sympathizer Franz Liebkind (Bill Nolte) titled Springtime for Hitler.
The change in setting made it necessary for Brooks to tweak the film’s story a bit, dropping the hippie actor character LSD entirely. But on its most fundamental level, The Producers is vintage Mel. Never afraid to offend, Brooks takes broad shots at flamingly effeminate gays and ogles big-breasted Swedish secretary Ulla (Ida Leigh Curtis) shamelessly. He loves funny voices and/or speech impediments as punch lines, and he loves breaking the fourth wall to acknowledge the show’s theatricality. Sophisticated and urbane, he’s not.
But funny he is, especially when he lets his characters break into song. Brooks wrote the music and lyrics for 16 new numbers for The Producers, and they’re almost uniformly superb—pricelessly catchy songs filled with crafty turns of phrase. Original director/choreographer Susan Stroman contributes hilarious dance numbers that channel Brooks perfectly, including Bialystock’s cadre of little-old-lady investors using their walkers for a tap routine and Liebkind’s puppet pigeons sieg-heil-ing in unison. It all builds to the brilliantly staged debut performance of Springtime for Hitler, complete with elaborate costumes and a swastika-shaped chorus line.
Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick famously originated the roles of Bialystock and Bloom on Broadway, yet the characters also come with the baggage of Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder’s film interpretations. Amaral effectively captures Bialystock’s bigger-than-the-room personality, but Taylor can’t always sell Bloom at his most anxiety-ridden. And while it may not be fair to expect anyone to match the incomparable Wilder’s gift for screaming hysteria, the scenes where we’re expected to believe that Bloom depends on his blue blankie for security just feel forced here.
Fortunately, that incongruity proves a small price to pay, particularly when Taylor and the rest of the cast prove adept at belting out the wonderful songs. The performers are supported by lush production design and orchestrations that fill the theater, giving The Producers the feel of a genuine Broadway production in our little town. But maybe a lot of that success is also because Mel Brooks makes everything he does feel like it was meant for a big stage. It only took 50 years for him to figure it out.
THE PRODUCERS Broadway in Utah, Capitol Theatre, 50 W. 200 South, Through Nov. 28, 355-2787