Springtime for St. Louis

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

Although that outrageous production number is part of movie history, Stroman is out to make a little history of her own. Sure enough, she takes a classic set piece and, with only half as many dancers, makes it twice as spectacular. After the show pauses for a moment so that we can catch our breath (but only a moment; this is a show in a hurry), it continues on its merry way, right up until the wistful finale when Max and Leo stroll into the sunset, as if in search of some mythic musical-comedy nirvana to which they can now claim land rights.

From top to bottom, the casting is flawless. I have been watching Lewis J. Stadlen on stage and film for 30 years now with ever-increasing admiration. But I've never seen him deliver a more impressive bravura performance than as Max Bialystock. Here's what sets Stadlen apart from so many other actors: He doesn't need to be loved. He goes onstage, plays the role and lets the chips fall. His Max is a shady, immoral, unethical crook -- but Stadlen gets the laughs anyway. It's so refreshing to see an actor play to the audience without catering to it.

Don Stephenson's Leo is an ideal foil. An actor could easily fall into the trap of playing Leo as a one-note shriek. Stephenson finds all sorts of colors. When, at the end of the show, the self-respecting Leo appears onstage having grown about two inches, you appreciate how calibrated this performance has been.

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

But everyone is wonderful. Fred Applegate's neo-Nazi playwright sings an insane song with a chorus of adoring pigeons. Michael Paternostro's Carmen Ghia, the gay director's assistant, is completely over the top yet could not possibly offend anyone -- which in itself is a major feat in a show that is shameless in its desire to offend everyone.

Best of all is Lee Roy Reams as cross-dressing director Roger De Bris. In 1980, Reams made a splash on Broadway as the male ingenue in 42nd Street. But he's not an ingenue any more. Of late, Reams has been stuck in too many dreary Muny productions such as last summer's shoddy Hooray for Hollywood, in which he gave a performance that was little more than a travesty of his former self. His brilliant portrayal here is akin to an act of redemption. Reams as a singing Hitler spoofing Judy Garland -- that's the kind of tour de force that makes theater a unique joy.

St. Louis is only the fifth stop on the national tour, but it's fitting that we should be among the first to see The Producers, because we also were the first to see the film. Here's a little-known factoid: Although the movie premiered in New York City in March 1968, it tested in St. Louis a full six months earlier. In November 1967, the picture opened at two theaters (Loew's Mid City and the Sunset Hills Cinema 1). Each theater had its own distinct newspaper-ad campaign; they competed on the pages of the Post-Dispatch. Both campaigns were later scrubbed. But six months before New York Times film critic Renata Adler dismissed the film as "shoddy, gross and cruel," P-D movie reviewer Myles Standish hailed The Producers as "crazy, wacky and often hilarious."

Thirty-five years later, in this inspired new incarnation, it still is -- and that's no hype.

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