The Hitler Follies 

The Orpheum presents Mel Brooks' smash musical, The Producers.

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Please! Who knows what happened to poor Mel Brooks, the veteran comedy writer who cut his teeth working for Sid Caesar; who co-created the brilliantly awful TV series Get Smart; who wrote and directed such daring satires as Young Frankenstein, Blazing Saddles, and History of the World Part I? What happened to the man who made us laugh at cowboys sitting around a campfire farting and who made us howl at monsters singing selections from Your Hit Parade? Was he tired? Did he finally exhaust his seemingly endless supply of tasteless shtick? Was Brooks just coasting on his own celebrity, or had Hollywood failed the master satirist by producing a few decades of popular films that were so bad that lampooning them seemed redundant at best, perhaps impossible?

It's hard to say. What is clear is that Brooks had been in something of an artistic slump since his miserable 1987 Star Wars spoof, Spaceballs. But you just can't keep a good man down for long. As the millennium turned, bits of information started leaking out about a Broadway musical based on Brooks' first full-length film, The Producers, and the comic's stock was once again on the rise. When it was announced that Matthew Broderick and Nathan Lane would take on the roles created by Gene Wilder and Zero Mostel, the theater world fairly shook with anticipation. When, after a hot-ticket opening, The Producers received an unprecedented 12 Tony Awards in 2001, Brooks, who co-authored the adaptation and composed the songs, was once again being hailed as a comic genius.

In 1968, his film The Producers, originally titled Springtime for Hitler, was a certifiable box-office flop. Nobody was quite ready for a zany spoof of old Broadway, complete with dancing Nazis and plenty of Hitler gags. The plot was classic farce: Max, a once grand, now washed-up Broadway producer and his neurotic accountant Leo set out to produce the worst musical ever in order to pocket the investors' money when the show closes. Imagine a cross between The Odd Couple and Waiting for Guffman, with a pinch of Mamet-lite scam-artistry, and there you have it. Of course, Max and Leo's plan bombs, as did the film. But The Producers, which won an Oscar for best screenplay, didn't just go away. It developed a cult following of devoted fans who memorized the lines and kept the overlooked gem from sliding into the dustbin of cinematic history.

"Back when I was going to this little acting school in Boston, everyone could quote lines from [The Producers]," says Bob Amaral, the actor playing Max in the Broadway touring company of the show, which opened at The Orpheum on April 13th. "I'm the 'concierge,'" Amaral quotes, adopting a tone that may only be described as Pythonesque. "My husband used to be the concierge," he continues, "but he's dead. Now I'm the concierge."

Not only is Amaral a longtime admirer of the film, he's also well acquainted with his two famous predecessors in the role: Mostel and Lane. And he knows he's got some big clown shoes to fill.

"Mostel was such an influence early in life," Amaral says of the rotund, burlesque-trained comedian whose career almost ended when he was blacklisted in the 1950s. "People will come up to me after the show and they will say, 'You reminded us so much of Zero.' Well, it's not that I'm trying -- he's just so associated with the part in my mind." Amaral never saw Lane perform the role, but they have been friends for years. In the successful Broadway revival of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Amaral played the role of Lycus and worked as Lane's understudy.

"But the thing is," Amaral says, "I'm not doing Nathan Lane or Zero Mostel. I'm doing the show that I was given by Mel Brooks and by [director] Susan Stroman, who both did a fantastic job putting this thing together. And for the most part, it's just like the movie but with music. And the worst part about being in this show is that I can't watch [the climactic number] 'Springtime for Hitler.' It starts out with just a few people, then Hitler, then a few more people, then tanks, and paratroopers, and ballerinas on-point. I really miss watching it.

"When I rehearsed the part, I was in Chicago, so I got to watch the show every night, and I really miss watching the audience's reactions," Amaral says. "Some people would be offended. Mel's an equal-opportunity offender, though. If you wait long enough, he'll offend someone else, and you realize, 'Oh, that was all just a joke.' But there would be people in the audience bending over, slapping their thighs laughing -- slapping the back of their seat laughing; bending over holding their sides in pain laughing. And I miss watching that. When you're on stage, experiencing the audience as a mass, it's different. The response is more explosive. I mean, some of the laughs in this show are just explosive. They explode."

Through April 25th

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