John Massey as Max and Bryan Banville as Leo in San Diego Musical Theatre's production of The Producers
After he screened a rough cut of A History of the World, Part One to friends, Mel Brooks ran down the aisle yelling, “I can fix it! I can fix it!”
He didn’t fix The Producers, a hit show based on the 1968 movie, but he could have trimmed it down. Along with the zany premise — produce a Broadway flop and you don’t have to pay investors — the musical has maybe four boffo scenes. The rest, which total just short of three hours, are slow and jammed with jokes bordering on sexism, homophobia, and anti-Semitism. Sometimes they cross the line.
Brooks’s model for Max Bialystock, overheated entrepreneur, was Arthur J. Beckhard, legendary Broadway producer of the 1930s-40s. To raise money for Spring in Autumn and Broomsticks, Amen!, among others, Beckhard allegedly was a human casting couch that made house calls.
Max Bialystock has produced hits, but lately just a string of flops. The latest: Funny Guy, a musical based on Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Only Mel Brooks could have dreamed up that notion and, for that matter, the musical Max and his “creative accountant” Leopold Bloom (protagonist of James Joyce’s Ulysses), choose for their certain flop: Springtime for Hitler, A Gay Romp with Adolph and Eva at Berchtesgaden.
And who else but Brooks could envision a production number with 16 elderly female dancers clomping around the stage with walkers?
The 2000-Year-Old Man
(Brooks has been Hall of Fame funny since the '50s. If you haven’t, listen to his "2000 Year Old Man" with Carl Reiner; he’s as quick as Robin Williams and as smart as they come.)
Since so much of Brooks’s humor turns things inside out, the surefire flop hits the heights. Act two, scene five pays a reverse-homage to Busby Berkeley: Storm Troopers do a stiff-armed tap number, followed by a frolicking Panzer tank division. Every souped-up, kaleidoscopic effect aims at levitating the applause meter.
Thanks to Janet Renslow’s choreography (based on Susan Stroman’s original), the number works wonders in San Diego Musical Theatre’s production. It’s the highlight, the “alone worth the money” scene. Bring on the denouement.
But The Producers has six more scenes to go. Each with drab flats and faded drops way too long in the tooth — and with slow, first-act dialogue, when it’s time for the home-stretch charge.
Zero Mostel could carry those scenes with his worldwide performance style (Stella Adler told her students, “Never get on a stage with an animal, a child, or Zero Mostel”). Even with capable John Massey as Max, and the talents of Bryan Banville (Leo), Siri Hafso (Ulla), Lance Carter (Franz, the pidgeon-loving Nazi), Russell Garett (flamboyant Roger DeBris), and Luke Harvey Jacobs (flamboyant-to-the-max Carmen Ghia), the SDMT show is over before it’s done.
The boffo scenes are worth the price of admission. The wait between’s another price to pay.
Playing through October 9.