Blazing Twaddle

Advance raves can be counterproductive. The unanimous word on The Producers was superlative, arousing in some of us unfillable expectations. Sure enough, at a late preview, people around me wallowed in gusts of guffaws while I chuckled fitfully.

Mel Brooks always struck me as half crudely funny and half merely crude. His 1968 film, The Producers, found me only sporadically tickled, despite my love for Zero Mostel and early Gene Wilder. I was not even greatly taken with the now-legendary production number “Springtime for Hitler,” which struck me as forced, and still does to some extent in the musical adaptation, even though Susan Stroman has staged it riotously, William Ivey Long costumed it uproariously, Robin Wagner designed it mischievously, and Peter Kaczorowski lighted it, well, lightsomely.

As you may recall, the shady producer Max Bialystock and his “creative” accountant and bumbling sidekick Leo (short for Leopold) Bloom aim to cash in on a scam that hinges on an instant Broadway flop. They produce to this effect Springtime for Hitler, an abysmal musical by Franz Liebkind, an unhinged neo-Nazi pigeon breeder and sub-zero author, meant to give offense to all. Instead, the show is an immediate smash, with Max and Leo, whose ruse backfires, headed for jail. As a grandiose production number on Broadway – with the passage of time having made Nazi jokes less disturbing and audiences less discerning – the show within the show couldn’t help being a hit, which makes the eponymous producers into even bigger fools than intended.

The book still has the naughty-schoolboy humor – if that is to your taste – and Brooks has added sixteen new songs to the movie’s two. It has been his lifelong ambition to write words and music for a Broadway musical, and, by Jove, he has done it. The score is always workmanlike in its lyrics, and if the tunes have a slightly recycled sound, they are nevertheless melodious and at times even rousing. And what you get from Miss Stroman’s choreography and direction is, of course, well above what flounders in today’s surrounding musicals.

The production values dazzle, as, for example, in hilarious things done with pigeons, walkers, and balls and chains, which I wouldn’t dream of revealing here. Just when you thought that Nathan Lane had shot his considerable wad, he is Max to the max; here he is giving off more funny faces, deftly daft moves, and athletically hurled throwaway lines than a Christmas tree has sparklers, and singing with the sweetness of a dying swan. Though a trifle less assured, Matthew Broderick’s Leo is endearingly artful and songful enough to make us believe that every Joycean dog will have his Bloomsday. And what a pleasure to have back Cady Huffman of the endless legs – and scarcely shorter looks and talent – even if her makeup here leaves something to be differently desired.

Everyone is on the mark. The gay jokes – worn rather thin in 33 years – are nevertheless spiffily executed by Gary Beach, Roger Bart, and others, cheekily abetted by the winking costumes. Brad Oscar exudes goofy gusto as Liebkind; Ray Wills and Peter Marinos make pleasing contributions, although the miking throughout is annoyingly obstreperous. That there is enough to Brooks to electrify the many and divert the few brooks no denying. But for full flotation, sit with your expectations left, unlike life jackets, uninflated.

Things that have historical significance live in the historic past; the rest are merely, in the current slang sense, history. So it is that a pleasant little musical like Bells Are Ringing no longer rings many bells, especially if its revival is as lackluster as the current one in Tina Landau’s unidiomatic direction.

There are several things wrong here, but the worst – contrary to what you may have read elsewhere – was the casting of Faith Prince as the solicitous and charismatic phone-answering-service operator Ella Peterson, a role Judy Holliday irradiated at the 1956 premiere with armor-piercing charm. Miss Prince, regrettably, has some twenty extra years and an equal number of extra pounds under her belt, which, however, is trifling compared with her slim spontaneity and slender charm. Looking like Angela Lansbury on a bad-hair day, she seems about as likely to fill the sullen and hostile riders on a New York subway with fraternal love as able to transform the Sahara into a botanical garden.

As the blocked playwright Ella falls telephonically in love with, Marc Kudisch looks good, sings well (although somewhat nasally), and acts much less easefully than Sidney Chaplin back when. (He does loosen up in Act Two.) In fairly frothy parts, David Garrison, Beth Fowler, and Martin Moran work hard and, on the whole, effectively. The better Comden-Green-Styne songs still effervesce; the lesser, and more numerous, ones don’t. The book sweetly obsolesces, Jeff Calhoun’s dances deliver a working minimum, Riccardo Hernandez’s sets are Spartanly functional, and some of Donald Holder’s lights – strangely jiggling coils – suggest looking into an overheated toaster. Totally inexcusable are David C. Woolard’s costumes, particularly unflattering for Miss Prince. An opening video evokes the fifties amusingly; the rest has to be taken on Faith.

Troilus and Cressida is one of Shakespeare’s possibly best, and certainly most unusual, plays; Peter Hall, the distinguished visiting director from Britain, should have run with it. Alas, he is defeated, partly by himself and largely by the cast Theatre for a New Audience put at his disposal. It is a nice idea not to have the mostly American actors emulate British Shakespeare, but except for Andrew Weems, Earl Hindman, and Nicholas Kepros, both the local and imported actors are either slightly or grossly inadequate.

Staging in the round on a sandlot is problematic; the battle scenes, though weird enough, fall flat. Martin Pakledinaz’s costumes lean toward the bargain basement, and why are the Trojans barefoot? One stomp from the heavily booted Greeks would incapacitate the best of them.

The Producers
At the St. James Theatre.
Bells Are Ringing
At the Plymouth Theatre.
Troilus and Cressida
At the American Place Theatre.

Blazing Twaddle