Broke Bank Mountin’:
A Review of Lane and Broderick in The Producers
by Tony Phillips
Susan Stroman’s musical remake of Mel Brooks’ 1968 film and her own Tony-winning 2001 musical The Producers proves there’s no business like slow business. The film descends upon a Manhattan every bit as CGI-ed as the Gotham of King Kong, yet sputters along with a yawning 20-minute chasm between the first and second numbers and an hour-long wait for Uma. By the time she’s done, Stroman’s filled the screen with an entire chorus line of 800-pound dancing gorillas, but with almost the entire first hour spent on a shopworn premise everyone knows too well already — “A producer could make more money with a flop than he could with a hit” — this film to musical back to film musical begins to read like Broadway for the poor.
Nathan Lane’s Max Bialystock — a shady theatrical producer literally held together by his cardboard belt — enlists Matthew Broderick’s infantilized accountant Leo Bloom to cook his books. During this bonfire of the vanities, they arrive at their scheme to find a sure fire flop: a musical called Springtime for Hitler. Stroman doesn’t take many chances as newbie film director here, proceeding as if shooting for The Library of the Performing Arts rather than a major Hollywood studio, but it’s her attempts to open up the material that provide the real comedy. Bloom’s “You’re like a fountain” line necessitates a cab ride to Central Park’s Bethesda Fountain while a chorus line of Fifth Avenue biddies showcase another side of the park for the walker-tapped showstopper “Along Came Bialy. It’s as if Henry “StarQuest” Stern is enjoying a second act as location scout.
The film, like the Broadway musical, really only sings when Stroman forgets she’s in New York — real or imagined — and lets these numbers gush forth as golden age MGM musicals in Max and Leo’s mind. Broderick’s “I Wanna Be A Producer” number is movie magic and could have come direct from the Freed Unit, while Lane’s eleven o’clock recap “Betrayed” — unnecessarily sliced and diced here — still retains a flash of what garnered him the Tony. But when sparring head to head, Broderick comes off fresh while Lane seems bored, and who can blame him? These two have been in rehearsals since 2001. Still, it’s nice to see Broderick, as the sub to Nathan’s dominant Bialystock, reverse this season’s Brokeback Mountain trend and become the bottom who comes out on top.
Other concerns for this show’s big gay following are Uma Thurman and the House of Flying Dragons. While Thurman turns in a game Ulla, one can’t help but wonder what an actor who could actually sing — like Nicole Kidman, whom Thurman is rumored to be replacing here — would have done with the part of the ditzy, Swedish secretary who gamely asks, “You want Ulla sing and dance?” Well, sure, we want Ulla sing and dance, but sadly, while she looks great mopping the floor in her white Marilyn dress, the singing half of the equation comes up short. Still, she’s working with a director whose breakout hit Contact introduced the concept of canned music to live theater, so let the chips fall where they may.
Gary Beach and Roger Bart fare much better as the crossed-dressed director Roger De Bris and his “common law assistant” Carmen Ghia whom Bialystock and Bloom enlist to bring their car crash of a musical to life. Their “Keep It Gay” number may just bump Faye Dunaway’s Crawford out of the universal gay repertoire, but they’re not performing their gender any less than the gay cowboys on Brokeback Mountain. Don’t hate just because they happen to fall on the less popular side of the butch/queen binary. Still, a house full of queens and musical numbers already overly familiar are a little less than we might have hoped for from The Producers, but sit through the end credits for a glimpse of this franchise’s eminence gris as he clears the theater. “It’s over,” Mel Brooks yells. He’s probably right.