What is an understudy or replacement to do when he takes over a role vacated by a star? Whether or not badgered by the director, he is quite likely to imitate the departed star. This is dangerous business, because the more there is of impersonation, the less there is of individual performance. That, to a not inconsiderable extent, is what is happening to the good Brad Oscar and Steven Weber, replacing Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick, respectively, as Max Bialystock and Leo Bloom in The Producers, the musical that won somewhere between 200 and 300 Tonys last year.
I was one of two or three critics not to be bowled over by Mel Brooks’s recasting his old movie as a Broadway musical. In the process, he managed to cannibalize almost his entire oeuvre, but as there is no law against self-plagiarism, why not? Especially since Brooks came up with a show that surpasses most of what nowadays passes for musicals (don’t ask me to name names).
Of course, he had the expert help of Thomas Meehan on the book, splendid direction and choreography from Susan Stroman, a great design team in Robin Wag-ner, William Ivey Long, and Peter Kaczorowski, and some fine orchestrations and arrangements. And an unbeatable cast. All those elements remain, including the superb performances of Cady Huffman, Gary Beach, and Roger Bart, and the worthy addition of Jim Borstelmann, who has replaced Oscar as Franz Liebkind, pigeon breeder, turkey writer, and queer-duck neo-Nazi.
But to return to Messrs. Oscar and Weber. They have everything it takes except a certain frenzied self-confidence à la Lane and little-boy vulnerability à la Broderick. But no one seeing the show with them should depart feeling shortchanged.
Ah, star power! The Encores! series revived that pleasant musical The Pajama Game with two irresistible stars, a perfectly competent supporting cast, and, of course, the joyous Coffee Club Orchestra under Rob Fisher. There is good work from everybody, notably the always funny Mark Linn-Baker, but make the new supervisor at the Sleep Tite pajama factory Brent Barrett, and the head of the grievance committee Karen Ziemba, and you’re already home free. When they sing, dance, speak, or just stand still, something is added to what normal faces, bodies, and voices – and ordinary stillnesses – can do. It is that priceless intangible called charm, for an audience to bask in as in a spring day or an idyllic summer resort, only a little bit more so.
John Rando has directed bouncily. The same goes for most of John Carrafa’s choreography until we get to the much-heralded rethinking of the show-stoppers “Steam Heat” and “Hernando’s Hideaway.” These dances are only half rethought; the other, unimprovable half that shines through is still Bob Fosse’s.
Martha Clarke, the theater-piece conceiver and choreographer, has brought back her Vienna: Lusthaus, with (revisited) added to the title. It is meant to be an evocation of turn-of-the century (that century!) Vienna, drawing on the words and music of Freud, Krafft-Ebing, Bach, Berg, Johann Strauss, and the incomparable Peter Altenberg. It emerges as pale dance, inchoate pantomime, and a barely coherent text by Charles L. Mee in a wash spiked by a good deal of ineloquent nudity.
Schiele, Klimt, and others are also invoked, but I was more reminded of Einstein as the relative brevity of 65 minutes became a relative eternity of boredom. The only notable achievement was that of Elzbieta Czyzewska, who managed to make English and German equally incomprehensible.
Now starring Brad Oscar and Steven Weber.
The Pajama Game
Encores! concert, starring Brent Barrett and Karen Ziemba (closed).
Vienna: Lusthaus (revisited)
Revival of the theater-dance piece by Martha Clarke.