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Thursday, December 08, 2005


ModFab On...The Producers

Starring: Nathan Lane, Matthew Broderick, Uma Thurman, Will Ferrell, Gary Beach, Roger Bart, and Jon Lovitz
Written by Mel Brooks and Thomas Meehan
Directed by Susan Stroman
PG-13 for sexual humor and references

Running on equal parts electricity, gasoline, and bombastic one-liners, The Producers is a hybrid vehicle for the entertainment age. It began as a movie, became a musical, then turned back into a movie musical. On Broadway, where it entered the history books with the most Tony Awards ever lauded on one production, it was (and remains) the funniest evening I have ever spent inside a theatre. Mel Brooks' comedy is often inane and usually juvenile, but always savagely on target. Thomas Meehan's book is a thing of Borscht Belt beauty, keeping up the pace while Brooks slings the zingers. Susan Stroman's direction and choreography twinkle with imaginative comic flair. And the performances: Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick redefined their careers as a now-legendary stage duo, and the ensemble featuring Gary Beach and Roger Bart is as solid as Mount Rushmore. It is not just a musical comedy; it is the DEFINTION of musical comedy.

On Broadway, that is.

Which is why it is so perplexing, and maddening, and distressing to see the new film version of THE PRODUCERS sluggishly limp into megaplexes, carrying its lumpy theatrical bulk like a rucksack instead of as the dazzling firecracker it is. Sure, all of the pieces are there (Lane, Broderick, Beach, Bart, and Stroman have returned for the movie) and some sparkly new additions are included too -- Will Ferrell (Elf) and Uma Thurman (Kill Bill) match the legit lunacy perfectly. But Stroman's choice to foreground the old-school theatricality (characters routinely look directly into the camera while singing, and mugging runs rampant) exposes the puppeteer's fragile wires, and Meehan's chunky dialogue doesn't have the dexterity necessary for film. This new PRODUCERS is played at 100,000 decibels, as if they were still yelling to the back row of the St. James Theatre on 44th Street. Where it once was a whoopie-cushion update of Moliere, the piece is now an overplayed farce that telegraphs its jokes and lands them with all the grace of a sledgehammer. It is still funny -- how could it not be, it's Mel Brooks! -- but it has lost something much more important...its charm.

Let me clarify one point: a good time can still be had at THE PRODUCERS. The story -- about a couple of abysmal theatrical producers who realize that, with some creative accounting, they can make more money with a Broadway flop than with a hit -- is still ingeniously simple and bawdily charming. What the piece has lost in sophistication its had picked up in bravado -- the mush-mouthed "Haben Sie Gehört Das Deutsche Band" makes it nearly impossible not to crack a smile, and the so-bad-it's-great classic "Springtime For Hitler" is still the gut-splitting hilarity it always has been. But many of the other moments that were so marvelous on Broadway fall flat. Lane and Broderick's important bonding moment, the none-too-subtle duet "We Can Do It," feels less like a threshold of revelation and more like Abbott and Costello on acid. The Astaire-and-Rogers fantasy "That Face" exposes the lack of dance training Broderick and Thurman have, with clumsy cuts to stunt dancers and less-than-stellar footwork. Although the famous "dancing grannies" of the showstopper "Along Came Bialy" have increased in number, the engorged ensemble is less impressive, not more.

Stroman has clearly aimed to make a love letter to cinema's Golden Age, replete with ornately articifical sets, classic costumes, and a heighted performance style. She is thwarted, however, by thudding cinematography of John Bailey (Must Love Dogs) and Charles Minsky (Princess Diaries 2), who lack the sweep and grandeur that typified classic movie musicals. In trying to capture the spirit of a different time, THE PRODUCERS betrays its modernity in every scene.

Nathan Lane is one of America's great comedians, and as the puffed-up buffoon Max Bialystock, he is sublime...until he drifts into his ham-fisted tendency to overplay the moment. He fares significantly better, however, than Broderick; previously the straight man that grounded Lane's bluster, he has changed Leo Bloom into a caricature of paranoid tics and stuttering tremulations...viewers will get tired just watching him sturm und drang. Of the original cast, only Tony Award winner Gary Beach really shines. Reprising his role as flamboyantly gay director Roger de Bris, Beach brings down the house with "Heil Myself", a Judy-Garland-at-the-Hollywood-Bowl showstopper with de Bris playing Adolf Hitler as the world's ultimately sissy. Don't be surprised if he becomes the film's lone Oscar nomination.

If you do opt to see THE PRODUCERS -- and truthfully, as rough and tumble as it is, you could do far worse (Memoirs of a Geisha, anyone?) -- make sure to stay through the credits. Will Ferrell's secret number, "The Hop-Clop Goes On", is priceless, as is the final bit featuring a cameo by Brooks himself. If only the first two hours were as genuinely witty as the last five minutes, THE PRODUCERS could have touched greatness the way it did on Broadway. As it is, it just plods to a conclusion, dustily creaking through its overheated paces.


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