- The Washington Times - Friday, June 25, 2004

Sieg-heiling pigeons, characters named “Touch Me Feel Me” and “Carmen Ghia,” an ersatz musical version of “Hamlet” titled “Funny Boy,” and a song-and-dance extravaganza celebrating “Springtime for Hitler” are just some of the vulgar delights of “The Producers,” the Mel Brooks musical that won a record 12 Tony Awards in 2002.

The feel-great musical arrives in Washington two years later with all its jovial kitsch intact, and the bang-up team of Lewis J. Stadlen and Alan Ruck occupying the starring roles created by Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick on Broadway.

“The Producers,” in fact, is based on Mr. Brooks’ 1968 film, a cult classic starring Zero Mostel as the washed-up theatrical producer Max Bialystock and Gene Wilder as Leo Bloom, a nebbishy accountant.

In both versions, Bloom stumbles upon the notion that raising more money than needed for a huge flop would generate greater income than a legitimate hit, and before you can say, “Carrie: The Musical,” Bialystock is back in business. Max brings all-new meaning to the term “creative financing,” as his method is to romance libidinous little old ladies, who are only too happy to write a check afterward to a show called “Cash.” But first, Bialystock (Mr. Stadlen) and Bloom (Mr. Ruck) need to find the worst show ever written, and soon they do: “Springtime for Hitler,” a musical apologia written by Franz Liebkind (Fred Applegate), a Nazi sympathizer who believes that Adolf didn’t get a fair shake.

To up the floperoo factor, Max hires a director, Roger DeBris (Lee Roy Reams), the queen of schlock, whose big number, “Keep It Gay,” hilariously explains his philosophy that even the most somber subject matter can be goosed up with glitter, sequins and a triple-time step.

It helps to have a thick skin, since Mr. Brooks is an equal-opportunity parodist. Every stereotype is exploited for maximum merciless fun — from homosexuals, the elderly and Jews to Nazis, blacks and flamboyant showbiz types. Even that staple of the Broadway blockbuster, the gorgeous female lead, is sent-up, here in the va-va-voom form of Ulla (Charley Izabella King), Max and Leo’s secretary, a Swedish import who speaks the universal language: s-e-x.

Mr. Brooks wrote the music and lyrics for “The Producers,” which further displays his talent for mischief-making and groaner puns, as well as his facile way with traditional Broadway melodies. Aided by the remarkably creative choreography by Susan Stroman (who also directed), Mr. Brooks tackles the love ballad, the novelty tune, the showstopper, and the narrative song with affection and aplomb.

It is nearly impossible to pick out a favorite sequence, but one of the most outrageous is “Little Old Lady Land,” a lace-edged theme park dedicated to a chorus of golden-agers who boing-boing around on trampolines and execute Rockettes-style choreography, only using walkers instead of top hats and canes.

“Springtime for Hitler,” however, breaks new ground in inspired irreverence. It features Ziegfeld-inspired chorus girls modeling costumes comically festooned with knockwurst, beer steins, pretzels and other Teutonic symbols; a goose-stepping troupe of dancers; a parody of the use of mirrors in “A Chorus Line,” only with storm troopers; and an unrestrainedly fey Hitler (Mr. Reams) who sashays around the stage trilling “Heil Myself.” Robin Wagner’s pun-filled sets have translated beautifully to the traveling version of “The Producers,” although there were some set-change glitches on opening night. Some of the dancing was also wobbly, especially in the first act.

The performances overcame any technical difficulties.

Mr. Stadlen makes a finely blustery Max Bialystock, combining the hotheaded combustion of Zero Mostel with the commanding Broadway finesse of Nathan Lane. He is particularly strong in the soliloquy, “Betrayed,” where he does a recap of the entire musical in a few breath-stopping minutes.

Mr. Ruck, whom audiences might recall from his years playing Stuart in the sitcom “Spin City” as well as playing opposite Matthew Broderick in “Ferris Buehler’s Day Off,” is a dandy surprise as Leo Bloom. He possesses an affecting light tenor, as well as the bumbling, aw-shucks sweetness that puts you in mind of Jimmy Stewart.

As the lust interest, Miss King exhibits both innocence and the lush confidence of centerfold material as Ulla, whose big number, “When You Got It, Flaunt It,” is sexy and playful without trying too hard. Mr. Applegate makes Franz Liebkind into the ultimate champion of the underdog, and his song to a bunch of caged homing pigeons giving the Nazi salute with their wings is a scream.

Is “The Producers” worthy of the gazillion awards and all the hullabaloo? You could argue that it breaks no new ground (but many taboos) and is a rehash of every Broadway musical since “Shuffling Along,” but that does not take into consideration the sheer entertainment value of Mr. Brooks’ musical. Sometimes it is such a relief to just laugh.

***1/2

WHAT: “The Producers,” music and lyrics by Mel Brooks

WHERE: Opera House, Kennedy Center

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays, 1:30 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Through Aug. 22.

TICKETS: $35 to $90

PHONE: 202/467-4600

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