Springtime for St. Louis

Crazy, wacky, hilarious -- the American musical is back

Ever since its already legendary Broadway opening twenty months ago -- in fact, even earlier, beginning with its triumphant tryout in Chicago -- The Producers has been the most hyped show of our generation. It has been showered with superlatives and buried under an avalanche of adjectives. So perhaps my biggest surprise on finally seeing the musical, which is currently on view at the Fox Theatre, is this: All the advance hype was true and perhaps even understatement.

The Producers is event theater, a musical comedy paradigm that has re-energized the Broadway landscape. Its shine and polish can bring tears of gratitude to a theater lover's eyes. Pack your bags, Cats, Les Miz and Phantom. After nearly twenty years of wandering in the wilderness, the American musical -- in all its wonderfully old-fashioned, crowd-thrilling perfection -- is back.

The unlikely plot is hardly the stuff of a conventional smash-hit musical. There's no lovable Auntie Mame or Dolly Levi, nor is there a handsome, robust balladeer to be played by John Raitt or Brian Stokes Mitchell. But then, there are no ballads, either. There's not the thoughtful substance we've come to expect from a Sondheim musical, or even the hummable tunes of Jerry Herman. What we get instead is a relentlessly grandiose evening of risqué, double-entendre, gently offensive humor delivered by two idiosyncratic losers.

Lewis J. Stadlen and Don Stephenson in The Producers
Paul Kolnik
Lewis J. Stadlen and Don Stephenson in The Producers


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Fox Theatre, 527 North Grand Boulevard

Surely you remember the plot from the 1960s Mel Brooks movie of the same title: Flamboyant impresario Max Bialystock and timid accountant Leo Bloom scheme to strike it rich by producing an overinvested Broadway flop. They select the mother of all bad scripts, Springtime for Hitler, a play so rancid it is guaranteed to close on page four. Then they ensure the show's failure by hiring a holiday fruitcake of a director. Of course Springtime for Hitler becomes an unexpected hit, and everyone ends up in jail. For a while.

Although the show is subtitled The New Mel Brooks Musical, don't believe it. A film director can get away with that auteur nonsense, but not here. This is not Brooks' musical; this is Broadway's musical. This is directors, designers, orchestrators and performers all coming together to bestow their crafts on a highly specialized piece of material. The end product is a musical miracle, one of those infrequent yet cherished reminders that if you want to celebrate life, you don't need computer graphics and digital enhancement; you need living actors. That only happens in the legitimate theater.

So who's responsible for The Producers? Many gifted professionals. To Brooks, who supplied the original vision and bad taste, add Thomas Meehan, a skilled librettist (Annie, Hairspray) who as co-writer of the book brought structure to Brooks' anarchy. Add Glen Kelly, who took the simplistic little tunes that were bouncing about in Brooks' head and transformed them into full-blown songs adorned with chic, sassy orchestrations worthy of Frank Loesser or George Gershwin.

Add Susan Stroman, a director/choreographer who delights in taking your breath away. As a choreographer, Stroman's goal in life is to transform theater stages into Brueghel paintings. The show whirls, gyrates and trampolines. The playbill informs us that the production has a cast of 22; it feels like 50. As a director, Stroman uses movement to delineate character behavior. Watch for arms elegantly suspended in air like cobras; watch how Leo's blue security blanket emerges from his back pocket with the finesse of a conjuring act. Under Stroman's watchful eye, the entire production simply glides. She has emerged as the most innovative Broadway talent since Gower Champion.

Now add sets that are as witty as the dialogue, costumes that make you roar with laughter, lighting that captures the action in quicksilver, and then ask: Why is The Producers such a fabulous entertainment? Easy -- because the mix works.

The opening scene wastes not a second in establishing the show's irreverent tone. Max's first song, "The King of Broadway" (it's good to be the king), reveals Brooks as a rhyme-loving lyricist in the tradition of Ogden Nash. Scene 2, in Max's shoddy office, is so faithful to the dialogue in the movie, I began to worry that we might merely be watching a stage version sans Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder.

It's the next scene, at Leo's accounting office, when the mix that is The Producers becomes alchemy. In a moment of sheer magic, as Leo fantasizes about needing more adventure in his life ("I Wanna Be a Producer"), several chorus girls -- check that; did I say "chorus girls"? I meant to say "several stunning, statuesque visions, each worthy of the Ziegfeld Follies" -- emerge from the office file drawers. I've never seen that before! But then, I've never seen dancing pillows before or -- actually, it's better not to know. Let the surprises remain surprises.

But for me, watching those beautiful women emerge from the file drawers was the moment when this show laid claim to musical-comedy genius. Everything that followed that moment was attached to a rising line that built, scene by scene, laugh upon laugh, song after song, to the Act 1 finale. The intermission was filled with a keen suspense all its own: How could Act 2 possibly top what we'd just seen? But I had not reckoned with how Susan Stroman would stage "Springtime for Hitler."

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