The 2001 Broadway hit "The Producers" is the latest blockbuster musical to trod the expansive boards of the Hollywood Bowl, as a star-studded cast satisfied a surprisingly small opening-night crowd on July 27, following a frantic three-day rehearsal period.
While the visual panache of the original stage production -- a crucial element in capturing its rousing show business ambiance -- is compromised by the limitations of this vast outdoors venue, solid performances and Susan Stroman’s crackerjack choreography and direction ensured a bonafide crowd pleaser.
As musicals with a showbiz background go, Mel Brooks’ tuneful and sidesplitting farce ranks with the best. The book by Brooks and Thomas Meehan and the rollicking song score by Brooks provided a remarkably faithful stage adaptation of Brooks’ classic 1970 film comedy, while seamlessly making a transition into the genre of glittery, old-fashioned musical comedy.
Brooks’ iconic film, starring Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder, cried out for reinvention as a musical, and finally landed on Broadway in 2001, winning 10 fully deserved Tony Awards. In the latest step of this property’s journey, the rib tickling tale of sleazy Broadway producer Max Bialystock and the neurotic dupe, Leo Bloom, who the impresario draws into his money-grubbing schemes, the show provides a cornucopia of belly laughs and ebullient production numbers.
In the role of conniving theater producer Max, which bears the indelible stamps of Zero Mostel in the original film and Nathan Lane in the Broadway tuner, Richard Kind (who played the role on Broadway following Lane’s departure) is a highly resourceful comedian-singer. For the most part, he provides a more subdued take on the larger-than-life character than the aforementioned stars did, while keeping the laugh quotient high and capturing Max’s requisite quality of being a lovable if lascivious scoundrel.
As Max’s reluctant sidekick Leo, Jesse Tyler Ferguson (of TV’s "Modern Family") likewise gives a performance that feels less frenetic than Broderick’s interpretation, yet there are plenty of raucous laughs at the hysterical reactions of this basket-case accountant.
The comedic timing of Kind and Ferguson sometimes seems less than precise, which is evident within the cast as a whole. It likely has to do with the crash-course effort in getting this show on the boards. The well-known expression, "Dying is easy, comedy is hard," often rings true. Nonetheless, viewers should enjoy this production with the limitations of this kind of staging in mind. As such, the results were more than satisfactory.
The two finest performances in this staging are by actors who played the same roles in the original Broadway cast, as well as its commercially and critically unsuccessful 2006 screen adaptation. Gary Beach (Tony winner for this role) chews up the scenery with glee as flamboyantly gay cross-dressing film director Roger De Bris. Beach makes the number "Keep it Gay" gay in every sense of the word, and enjoys a tour-de-force turn during DeBris’ sidesplitting interpretation of Adolf Hitler, by way of Judy Garland and Ethel Merman.
As the mincing, furiously fey Carmen Ghia, De Bris’ "common law assistant," Roger Bart (known for "Desperate Housewives" and other credits, and a Tony nominee for this role), remains a solid-gold comedic presence, eliciting gales of laughter from his vocal inflections, body language, and exquisite wit. Characterizations as broadly etched as these two are admittedly among those more conducive to a vast performing area, but under any circumstances, Beach and Bart are master craftsman, performing roles here for which they’ll long be remembered.
As the red-hot Swedish bombshell, Ulla, Rebecca Romijn lacks the belt to do justice to the aptly titled, "If You’ve Got It, Flaunt It," but her sexy characterization hits all the right comedic notes. Dane Cook is generally quite funny as the lunatic Nazi playwright Franz Liebkind, another pullout-all-stops role, though predecessors in the part captured the character’s loose-cannon lunacy more effectively.
Purists will miss the excision of several of Brooks’ splendid songs, most notably Max’s jail-cell soliloquy "Betrayed," sort of a cockeyed send-up of Mama Rose’s neurotic "Rose’s Turn" from "Gypsy," It’s a shame we didn’t get to see what Kind would have done with this showstopping eleven o’clock number. Less crucial to the show, but still missed, were Max and Leo’s "Where Did We Go Right?" and "You Never Say Good Luck on Opening Night," as well as Max’s coda to Leo’s "Til Him" ballad in the courtroom.
The simplified version of Robin Wagner’s Tony-winning set design was acceptable, under these circumstances, but couldn’t conjure the Broadway pizzazz that this story cries out for. Other technical credits were satisfactory, musical director-conductor Kevin Stiles led the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra in a terrific rendition of the melodic score.
"The Producers" runs through July 29 at the Hollywood Bowl, 2301 North Highland Ave., Los Angeles, CA. For info or tickets on the remaining Hollywood Bowl season, call 323-850-2000 or 800-745-3000, or visit hollywood-bowl.com.