Times certainly do change. When Mel Brooks' multiple Tony Award-winning musical adaptation of his satirical 1968 film The Producers opened on Broadway in 2001, it was gobbled up whole by critics who praised it as comic manna from show-business heaven. The slobbering reception had to be sweet vindication for Brooks, a master parodist who won a best screenplay Oscar for the original film only after watching it tank at the box office amid angry, nearly universal critical outrage. Even the drug-taking, love-making, rock-and-roll revolutionaries of '68 rejected Brooks' total iconoclasm.
And it probably goes without saying that a scant two decades after the end of WWII, mainstream America still wasn't prepared for the intentionally offensive story of two Jewish swindlers (brilliantly played by Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder) who concoct a plan to bilk a million bucks from investors in a glitzy Broadway show called Springtime for Hitler, a musical celebrating in song and dance the glorious achievements of a handsome young fuhrer and his hip, hypersexualized Nazi Party.
For all of its naughty words and bad intentions, the retooled Producers musical, which opened last week at Playhouse on the Square, will only be shocking to the militant prudes and fans of well-crafted lowbrow comedy who are offended by how often Brooks repeats the same "laugh-at-the-funny-homo" gags. That's a problem because the show's title characters, Max Bialystock and Leo Bloom, are beasts of pure avarice and envy, and to make the characters as sympathetic as Playhouse heavy-hitters Dave Landis (Bialystock) and Michael Detroit (Bloom) have done (with the help of Brooks' updated script) guts a story that works best when it revels in its own absolute amorality.
Landis, a versatile actor and sharp director, should be able to settle fairly easily into Bialystock's greedy, grossly libidinous shoes. But he plays the role too amiably and close to his vest, allowing Detroit, his equally gifted co-star, to upstage him at every turn in the role of Bloom, a sputtering nebbish.
Detroit's over-the-top antics don't mask the actor's stunted character development, though there's every reason to believe he'll find some motivation for his mugging over the course of the show's run.
Ken Zimmerman engages in some expert scenery-chewing as the flamboyantly homosexual (not to mention completely thickheaded) Broadway director Roger De Bris. Zimmerman obviously (and rightfully) derives a tremendous amount of pleasure knowing just how much the sparkling, silver dress he wears makes him resemble the Chrysler Building. David Foster is delightful as Carmen Ghia, De Bris' houseboy and partner in fabulousness. It's a true shame that Foster, a deceptively physical actor and a real joy to watch here, is only given one threadbare joke to stretch over the entire show. Still, he swishes through it with zany aplomb.
Bruce Bergner's scenic design, a mix of painted drops and practical furniture on wagons, is almost as flat and uninspired as Ben Wheeler's lights and director Jay Berkow's bloodless choreography. To that end, The Producers is the perfect opposite of Theatre Memphis' current production of West Side Story, where extraordinary design and tight dancing make up for an unevenness among actors and vocalists. In this case, bland design and washed-out lighting leave Landis, Detroit, and a talented cast of professionals looking like well-intentioned community-theater performers.
Showgirls wearing giant pretzels, Volks-wagens, wieners, and German shepherds on their heads will always by funny. But once you get past the awesome headgear, Rebecca Powell's costumes for the "Springtime for Hitler" sequence are just plain boring compared to the vaguely sadomasochistic go-go-booted storm troopers from Brooks' original.
To do justice to The Producers, a director must press against the boundaries of good taste to find every naughty nook and crude crevice in order to discover where Brooks' once reviled, now classic material can still make audiences squirm with guilty delight. It's an exercise in excess irreverence that's been treated entirely too reverently in its Memphis premiere.
Through July 27th at Playhouse on