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 Producersis 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

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 Hitlerbecomes 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 Producersbecomes 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."

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.

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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