The Producers won more Tony Awards than any other Broadway musical ever, and the touring company that brings the show to Vancouver for the first time makes it easy to see why. It’s big, it’s brassy, it’s spectacular, it’s ridiculous—a classic American musical inflected with Mel Brooks’ trademark Jewish burlesque sensibility. After a slow start, it gets roaring with great singing and dancing, larger than life comic performances, and a sensationally bizarre story.
In a version of the rags-to-riches plot at the heart of so many Broadway musicals, mousy, scaredy-cat accountant Leo Bloom (Austin Owen) comes together with ballsy Broadway producer Max Bialystock (Jason Simon), notorious for creating the worst shows on the Great White Way (e.g., Funny Boy, his musical of Hamlet), and financing them by literally screwing little old ladies. Max and Leo concoct a scheme to make a fortune through a unique tax dodge: producing the worst musical ever, guaranteed to close immediately.
So they find the world’s worst script, a musical called Springtime for Hitler, glorifying Der Fuehrer, written by insane Nazi Franz Liebkind (hilariously manic Jesse Coleman). They hire New York’s worst director, the flamingly gay Roger De Bris (Brad Nacht, in a wonderful performance), guaranteed to mount the show in the most ostentatiously tasteless way. And naturally, it proves a big hit.
Brooks, a writer/director not known for his restraint (think of his movie of The Producers, or Blazing Saddles, or Robin Hood: Men in Tights), is absolutely shameless here in his stereotypes and caricatures—of the Nazi, the gay men (Roger has a whole crew of outrageous flamers, especially his assistant, Carmen Ghia (!), played as broadly as possible by the very funny John West), and Swedish blond bombshell Ulla (attractive and talented Elizabeth Pawlowski), who naturally has an insatiable sexual appetite (as do Bialystock’s little old ladies), and whose boobs and ass the producers ogle in what, in any other context, would be considered offensively sexist but here is just par for the course.
So…you just go with it. Brooks makes that easier with a series of brilliant production numbers, direction and choreography by Susan Stroman, whose great comic imagination justifiably won her Tony’s for both. There’s Franz’s big, ridiculous, “Der Guten Tag Hop Clop,” accompanied by dancing pigeons; Roger and company’s celebration of all things homo and upbeat (“Oedipus won’t bomb/If he winds up with Mom”), “Keep It Gay”; Ulla’s introduction, “When You Got It, Flaunt It”; the spectacular Act One Finale that brings all these weirdos together; and one of the most amazing stage numbers ever, “Springtime for Hitler,” complete with scantily-clad girls with giant pretzels and wieners on their heads, a chorus line of goose-stepping Nazis creating a Busby Berkeley-style swastika, and a singing, dancing, gay Hitler. After that, Bialystock and Bloom’s follow-up show inspired by their time in Sing Sing, Prisoners of Love, seems a little anti-climactic. But you gotta love the ball-and-chain choreography and the sequined prisoners’ costumes.
Much of the buzz around the original production of The Producers concerned the fabulous work of Nathan Lane and Mathew Broderick as Max and Leo. Not having seen that, I can’t compare them to this Max and Leo. But here they make a funny, effective, and supremely entertaining pair. Owen has a particularly good voice and Simon’s Max gives the show real star power. He’s got a big voice and is a terrific dancer, flinging his ample bulk around the stage with fierce comic abandon. He has the kind of larger- than-life presence and chutzpah that a Mel Brooks musical absolutely demands.
The Producers is Broadway at its best (and silliest), in a road-show production of very high quality. Highly recommended.