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.
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 Führer 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.
Short, working with less but lighter on his feet, finds a bit more, particularly when called on to do physical comedy. His pelvis-twitching gyrations and frequent pratfalls over various sofas and love seats amount to a one-man Kama Sutra of the casting couch. Folding his blue security blanket and cradling it on his arm whenever his Leo is overwhelmed with high-anxiety outbursts, Short has the passive-aggressive neuroticism but not enough of the smarmy opportunism required of Max's foil.
Of the remaining performers, Beach, Angie Schworer as Max and Leo's Vargas-esque assistant and Applegate as the kooky pigeon-fancying Nazi author of "Springtime for Hitler," do a fine job of channeling Brooks' high-frequency nuttiness without blowing a fuse in the process. Even so, compared to the 88-minute movie's comic concision, many of the routines in this 2 3/4-hour show feel belabored. Some of the incidental shtick has been strip-mined from Brooks' own oeuvre, right down to Marty Feldman's immortal "walk this way" from "Young Frankenstein."
The movie version of "The Producers" seemed to cry out for a full score, and Brooks has crafted a serviceable mélange of spry ditties that make sly allusions to Broadway legends past. There's a wink at "Fiddler on the Roof" in "The King of Broadway," a clever nod to "Ol' Man River" in Leo's parting shot to his sadistic CPA ex-boss, "I Wanna Be a Producer." Some of the song titles alone ("Der Guten Tag Hop Clop") can raise a smile. But apart from the first bars of "Springtime for Hitler," no single melody settles in the brain. At show's end you'll walk out ho-humming the score.
Several New York critics raved about the musical's "politically incorrect" humor, which might be more accurate if the audience, like the show, were suspended in 1959. Only someone suffering from terminal amnesia could write (as one reviewer did) that "The Producers" is the "most fearlessly irreverent thing ever seen on stage."
Meaning, um, Jewish American princess jokes? Oversexed little old ladies? Smart dumb-blond Swedish secretaries? A tossed-off visual reference to the Village People? This stuff is so old-shul, as Brooks might have it, it's pre-school. Even the lively Act I closer, "Little Old Lady Land," with Max being serenaded by the lusty octogenarians who've been bankrolling his box-office flops, can't come close to Monty Python's "Every Sperm Is Sacred" number as spot-on parody of an old-fangled showstopper.
That leaves us with William Ivey Long's terrific costumes -- the beer stein, pretzel and horned-helmet headdresses for "Springtime for Hitler" are masterworks -- and Robin Wagner's disappointingly lackluster scenery, poorly served by the Pantages' railroad terminal-sized proportions.
It's an unpleasant task to write negatively of a highly successful and anticipated show that offers a rare point of light in the cloudy firmament of the American musical theater. But, to borrow an old joke, "The Producers' " future may already be behind it. It looks entirely into the past, at a fondly remembered but rapidly fading style of comic theater fabricated of hyperbolic Jewish humor and Broadway in-jokes. As a genre, it has produced plenty of lowbrow highs. But as a map for the new century, it's more of a one-way cul-de-sac than a yellow brick road.