Book, music and lyrics by Mel Brooks
Book co-written by Thomas Meehan)
Directed and choreographed by Susan Stroman
Starring Sean Cullen and Michael Therriault
Canon Theatre, open-ended engagement

Reviewed by Joel Greenberg

"The Producers" arrives in Toronto as the most Tony-honoured musical in that award's considerable history. The play has also bagged numerous awards in other competitions to consolidate its position as a hit-of-hits kind of event. The Mel Brooks film of 1968 is now the Mel Brooks Broadway musical of 2001, and like Cats (the only reference you'll find here to Mr. ALW) it may well be here 'now and forever'. There's no doubt, too, that Brooks, had he any concern for old-age security, can rest now and forever, forever.

The story of a Broadway shyster who determines to produce the greatest flop in Broadway history, thereby ensuring his own financial Nirvana, is inspired lunacy. The plot's intertwining of the Nebbish and the Nazis further adds to the insanity that launched Brooks' film career and defined his particular Borscht-belt signature of 'what's wrong with 'more is more'? As originally played by Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder, the characters of Max Bialystock and Leo Bloom radiated excess and demanded no less from the actors. On screen they were chemically dependent — that is, they so accommodated each other that the always implausible events around them didn't matter a bit. And the several secondary characters, however well played, didn't leave a lasting impression because the leading duo soared beyond the confines of the story's plot.

Jumping forward more than thirty years, Brooks wrote the score (music and lyrics) and the book (co-authored by Thomas Meehan) for his own stage adaptation. Savvy show business veteran that he is, he knew that someone like Susan Stroman was probably the best director-choreographer for his project. [Webmaster's note: Close to the truth. Originally Brooks was working with Mike Ockrent, but when Mr. Ockrent died, his widow and frequent collaborator, director-choreographer Stroman, took up the mantle at Brooks's insistence.] As adept as he is, and has been, with scatter-gun ideas, she has a history that matches his for cleverness of visual trickery and a very sharp eye for the big picture. And aided in very large part by the performances of Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick, the production opened to reviews that made clichés such as 'boffo' sound fresh and newly minted. Now, in December 2003, more than two years later, Toronto has its own New York-directed, Canadian-cast production of The Producers.

My daughter and her boyfriend, both young theatre professionals, neither of whom had seen the film or knew the premise, loved its silliness and audacity. They had a great time watching a big, silly, old-fashioned musical. And I also loved the old-fashioned convention of the piece when I saw it a couple of weeks later, soon after the official opening night. The Overture struck up the way that musicals used to begin: no choreographed action to stun the audience into submission while some tuneless medley saws away in an over amplified sound system. And then the curtain rises on a Broadway street with usherettes chirping away about nothing of particular importance. And we're off on an evening of jokes, songs, dances and plenty of vaudeville-inspired mayhem.

But the key throughout is the old-fashioned look and feel. When was the last time that a 'new' musical played so many scenes— played any! — in front of a traveler while the set was being changed behind it? When was the last time that a 'new' musical opted for a relatively lo-tech approach to design? We are back in the era of flying set pieces and wagons that slide in and out. But we are also in the very present where these devices slide and glide with an efficiency possible only through 21st century technology. And Stroman's direction slides and glides as effectively and efficiently as the scenery.

And how does the stage version compare to its film progenitor? I wish that I didn't know the film as well as I do, because I know I would have laughed more than I did. I wish that I didn't remember so many of the film's details because, again, I am sure I would have laughed more and longer than I did. I also wish that the original performances were not so powerfully etched in my memory, because I couldn't quite forget Mostel or Wilder even as I left the theatre. But that said, I was taken with Michael Therriault's shy but tenacious Bloom. He has a sweet singing voice that he never overextends and you believe that he spends the evening learning to enjoy the possibilities that life has to offer him. Unfortunately, there are more than a couple of moments where he is directed to echo Wilder's original performance, but perhaps as the run continues Therriault will find his own way.

Sean Cullen has a harder time of defining the role as his own. His opening number reveals a performer who is not born to the brashness of good ol' musical comedy. He even appears to avoid playing directly to the audience so that the number is somewhat apologetic. However, he is more relaxed and more forthcoming in the book scenes, since they permit him room to breathe and strut his comic stuff. It's hard to find fault with a performer who never stops working and who is more than determined to hit the peaks, but Cullen never connects with the boisterous madness of Bialystock. Finally, the lack of crackling chemistry between the two leading men reduces what might have been near-hysteria to pure pleasure, and that's hardly bad news.

Elsewhere, Juan Chioran as Roger De Bris, the flaming director, makes much of his camp material and Brandon McGibbon as Carmen Ghia, his assistant, matches him swish for swish. Paul O'Sullivan, playing the demented pigeon-loving Nazi, is terrific especially considering that he is weighted down with the score's worst number. Sarah Cornell, the Amazonian Ulla, has certainly the longest legs in show business this season. Her performance is still more connect-the-dots than inspired, but this may also change as the run continues.

Expertly designed by Broadway's very best — Robin Wagner (sets), William Ivey Long (costumes), Peter Kaczorowski (lights) and Steve Canyon Kennedy (sound) — the evening motors along and looks just swell. Stroman's choreography, athletic and expansive, is not as startling as it once was. More dependent on joke than substance, the many numbers in this production delight but they never dazzle. Even the centerpiece, Springtime for Hitler, dissipates as the dancing continues too long after the joke has hit home. In effect, the ideas for the numbers are better and funnier than the reality on stage, though the chorus of young hoofers spares nothing as they knock themselves silly to please those of us who are grinning in our seats.

And if this isn't a nod to the old-fashioned glory of Broadway, nothing is.

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