Saturday, June 28, 2008

"The Producers" Not So Shocking

Posted By on Sat, Jun 28, 2008 at 4:00 AM

Times certainly do change. When Mel Brooks' smash, multiple Tony award-winning musical adaptation of his satirical 1968 film, The Producers opened on Broadway in 2001 it was gobbled up whole by critics who, in euphoric spasms, described it as nourishing comic manna from old-school showbusiness heaven. The slobbering reception, if a bit sycophantic, had to at least be sweet vindication for Brooks, a master parodist who won a best screenplay Oscar for the original film only after watching it stink up the box office amid angry, nearly universal critical outrage. Even the drug-taking, lovemaking, rock-and-roll revolutionaries of '68 rejected Brooks' iconoclasm and his evenhanded mockery of both the ossified establishment and the self-important counterculture. It probably goes without saying that a scant two decades after the end of WWII, mainstream America still wasn't quite prepared for the satirical story of two Jewish swindlers (brilliantly and manically played by Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder) who concoct a plan to bilk millions from investors in a glitzy Broadway show called Springtime For Hitler, a musical celebrating in song and dance the glorious achievements of a handsome young fuhrer and his hip, hypersexualized Nazi Party.

For all of its naughty words and bad intentions the retooled Producers musical is never all that shocking to anyone except perhaps the militantly prudish and gay activists who might be offended by how long Brooks tries to drag out the same "laugh-at-the-funny-homos" gag. And that's a bit of a problem. We should, at the very least, be joyously grossed out by these revolting creatures of pure avarice, just as we were by Mostel and Wilder's original takes on the repulsive Bialystock and his compulsive partner Bloom. But just like it's equally groundbreaking movie-to-musical cousins Hairspray and Monty Python's The Holy Grail, The Producers loses a more than it gains in its translation to the stage. Like The Holy Grail, in particular, it becomes a fetish object for fans who can't wait to stroke their programs while silently mouthing their favorite lines along with the cast. And at Playhouse on the Square's final preview there were more than a few people in the crowd vibrating in their seats, anticipating such famous quips as, "Blue Blanket!" and "I'm in pain, I'm wet, AND I'M STILL HYSTERICAL!"

Playhouse heavy-hitter Dave Landis seems like he should be able to settle fairly easily into the slippery shoes of the greedy, grossly libidinous Broadway producer Max Bialystock. That's not the case, however, as Landis, the exceptional director of Compleat Female Stage Beauty, plays the role too close to his vest allowing his equally gifted costar Michael Detroit to upstage him at every turn in the role of Bloom, a sputtering nebbish.

Ken Zimmerman, Playhouse on the Square's original artistic director, who put audiences in the aisles with his portrayal of a wicked, if pragmatic capitalist in last season's Urinetown, engages in some expert scenery-chewing as the flamboyantly homosexual (not to mention completely thick) Broadway director Roger De Bris. He obviously (and rightfully) derives a tremendous amount of pleasure knowing just how much his sparkling, silver dress makes him resemble the Chrysler building. David Foster, last seen as a mildly effective Johnny Depp wannabe in Pirates of Penzance is no less delightful as Carmin Ghia, Zimmerman's houseboy and partner in fabulousness. It's a true shame that Foster's only given one threadbare joke to stretch over the entire show, though he swishes through it with zany aplomb.

Bruce Bergner's scenic design, a mix of painted drops and practical furniture on wagons, is almost as flat and uninspired as Ben Wheeler's lights and Jay Berkow's bloodless choreography. To that end The Producers is the perfect opposite of Theatre Memphis' West Side Story where extraordinary design and tight dancing make up for an unevenness among actors and vocalists. In this case, bland design and washed out lighting leaves Landis, Detroit, and a talented cast of professionals looking like well-intentioned community theater performers.

Showgirls wearing giant pretzels, Volkswagens, weiners, and German Shepherds on their heads will always by funny. But once you get past the awesome headgear, Rebecca Powell's costumes for the "Springtime for Hitler" sequence are just plain boring. Brooks' design team took appropriately the look to extremes of sexual fetishism and anything short of that is going to be a letdown. As cute as dancing girls in too-short liederhozen may be, they just can't compete with the sadomasochist connotations of stormtroopers in tight leather hipboots.

To do justice to The Producers a director must push beyond the boundaries of good taste to see if Brooks' time-proven material can still make audiences squirm with guilty delight. It's an exercise in excess irreverence given a minimal, overly reverent treatment in its Memphis premiere.

by Chris Davis

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