Music and Lyrics by Mel Brooks
Book by Mel Brooks and Thomas Meehan
Directed by Susan Stroman
Starring Lewis J. Stadlen and Don Stephenson
St. James Theatre / 246 West 44th Street / (212) 239-6200

Reviewed by David Spencer

Of all the showbiz anecdotes I know about actors and their process, this one typifies some of the smartest thinking I’ve ever heard: While Nathan Lane was still starring as Max Bialystock in the Broadway company of the producers, he knew his time in it was finite and he knew, too, that his role would prove hard to recast. One of Lane’s best friends, actor Lewis J. Stadlen, a fellow with whom he had worked a great deal, came to see the show, and after, went backstage to congratulate him. Knowing Stadlen to be a topflight musical theatre performer and also devastatingly funny—and having more than a little sway with the creative team—Lane asked, "How would you like to replace me in the show?"

Stadlen thought about it and—though I am paraphrasing—the precise gist of his reply was, "No I don’t want to do that. But I would like to do the road company."

Lane was flabbergasted. The road life is not an easy one. Why in the world would Stadlen want to go on tour rather than just step into a stunningly good job as the lead in Broadway’s biggest hit?

"Because," Stadlen (approximately) replied, "then I’m filling your shoes with your company, in the shadow of and indebted to your performance, no matter what I do. But if I do the road company, it’s my company and my performance."

Stadlen indeed went out on the road for the better part of a year—while also indeed, both the long-running performers in Nathan Lane’s wake, those of Brad Oscar and his standby John Tracy Egan (we’ll sidestep the month-long tenure of Britisher Henry Goodman, universally branded by "Producer" insiders as a horrible mistake in judgment) evinced, no matter what their virtues, clear and less effective echoes of Mr. Lane. Even Mr. Lane’s costar, Matthew Broderick, left the show having created a template. When I recently saw Roger Bart in the role, he had not, as so many suspected he might, made it his own; the best he’d been able to do was put his own spin on Broderick’s imprimatur. And it isn’t surprising. Oscar, Egan and Bart had been watching their predecessors for more than a year, the show had its indelible rhythms and moving up could not be done so cleanly.

Meanwhile, Mr. Stadlen, and his Leo Bloom, Don Stephenson, had it in their contracts to flip over to the NY company once the road tour hit Los Angerles (where it became a sit down company starring Jason Alexander and Martin Short; another road tour went out subsequently with Brad Oscar and Andy Taylor).

And they bring to Broadway a remarkable freshness. Sporting a small mustache here, Stadlen owes nothing to Lane, except professional serendipity, and his Max is a very different experience. Sweatier, sleazier, not quite so charming, a bit more of a caged rat—yet a very likeable rogue for all that, and terribly funny, his singing voice bouncing between a sharpie’s growl and faux operatic grandeur. Stadlen spent much of his early career portraying Groucho Marx, and he uses the same dry wit and fast-talker techniques here. Even if he is not a star per se, he certainly has a star’s presence—and that makes an enormous difference where Max is concerned. The show has never been less than funny, but Stadlen has both the wattage and the innate sense of outrageous funny to lift audiences again to that sheer giddy hilarity that seemed to have left with Mr. Lane.

As his Leo Bloom, Don Stephenson is a bit less of a cartoon than Broderick. Like Stadlen, he has had the opportunity to create his own performance defining indicia, and here the nervous accountant is in fine hands and voice. But the cartoonishness is not as absent as it might be; which inevitably leads one to believe that this similar, independently developed "take" is less about the actors’ choice than the director’s. With this role, it seems, Susan Stroman has encouraged blurring the line between broad stroke and caricature. But give Mr. Stephenson this much within the boundaries: it’s his own caricature.

The aforementioned John Tracy Egan has temporarily stepped into the role of the madcap theatre queen director Roger DeBris, and while, as with his Max, he is beholden to his predecessor (Gary Beach, spending half a year with the L.A. company), the debt is not quite so apparent, and the role molds more easily to his persona. (I hasten to add: I don’t mean to say he’s wildly fruity in real life—for all I know, he’s a polygamist with five mistresses and 30 kids—but the humor of the role is something he seems to have very comfortably in his system, and the delirious excess of it is something her delivers with deceptive ease.) As his sidekick and "common law assistant" Carmen Ghia, Brad Musgrove, lithe, thin, snaky and affected to the nth degree, takes the word "queen" and gives it wings. Another set of wings.

Finally, among the featured newcomers, there is Peter Samuel as the expatriate German author of "Springtime for Hitler"…Always a terribly funny role, the Kraut on a roof full of pigeons in the west village, wearing liederhosen and a helmet…but in the hands of the big voiced Mr. Samuel, the character’s fanaticism acquires something it hasn’t quite had before in quite the same sharp relief: an edge of genuine insanity. Like the headliners, Mr. Samuel is new to the show and has reinvented the role according to his own comic designs—and he’s a revelation.

The last major supporting player, Cady Huffman as Ulla, has been with the show from the start and she hasn’t lost any of her octane or enthusiasm. As for the rest of the ensemble—a few new faces, many old, and all holding the fort as expertly and winningly as one could desire.

So: "The Producers"…

Still well worth the C-note, I’m afraid. But the good news is, three years in, some of the cheaper seats are easier to come by, and you needn’t wait as long—or at all in any meaningful sense—to see what all the hoo-ha (and ha-ha) is about. And it’s a new chance to see it with a cast capable of delivering the show at its best. And there is no bad news…

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