There is only one thing missing from the Broadway musical version of Mel Brooks’ 1968 masterpiece The Producers. It’s not the borscht-belt shtick that sends up everything from beyond-swishy directors to Nazi sympathizers who raise pigeons in their spare time. It’s not the brave, gloriously raunchy depiction of desperate old ladies departing with their money for a roll in the hay with a defeated has-been. And it’s certainly not the breathless vaudevillian mile-a-minute ranting, mugging and sight-gags a-go-go that marked Brooks’ tenure as the top-dog of late 1960’s and early 1970’s comedy filmdom (12 Chairs, Blazing Saddles, Young Frankenstein). The timeless centerpiece of bad taste and brilliant satire that is “Springtime for Hitler,” the musical number that is supposed to guarantee the flop that the scheming producer Max Bialystock (played in the film by Zero Mostel) and his accountant, Leo Bloom (Gene Wilder) are counting on is all there too. In fact, all of the original fixtures are in place — and they are as fresh and funny as they were 35 years ago.
What’s missing is Max Bialystock’s comb-over. That oily multi-stranded paean to all the phony losers in the world worn by the now-departed Zero Mostel could never be worn with the same fat, sweaty intensity as it was in the original film. It is wise that the Broadway version of the film leaves it out. It would seem forced if Bob Amaral, who plays Bialystock in the current production at the Masonic Temple Theatre, chose to don that indelible and perfect symbol on stage. It is a testament to the strength of the play and to the talents of Mr. Amaral that the production does not suffer for its absence. When I saw the movie years ago, I couldn’t keep my eyes off it. For those who haven’t had the pleasure of checking out this celluloid classic, this hair “style” is akin in power to the one worn by Bill Murray (also playing a sleazy, con-man, amoral loser) in the Farrelly brothers’ comedy Kingpin. The comb-over drove home the seediness and greed of Max Bialystock and the grotesque physical properties that represented his nature.
For the unfortunate few who have never seen the film, it concerns itself with a scam perpetuated by a once-successful Broadway producer (Bialystock) and a nebbish accountant (Bloom). The scam is to produce a play guaranteed to close in one night. If the play closes in one night then all of the money they collected from investors to produce the thing would be theirs. Not one investor, not two investors, but scores of old ladies who have been promised anywhere from 50 percent to 100 percent of the take. You don’t need a calculator to understand that this blatant defrauding would be disastrous if the play was a success and they had to pay out those percentages. But they don’t plan on paying out anything. They plan on keeping the loot by putting on a play so horrid, so distasteful and such an affront to the sensibilities of any rational human being that they are virtually assured of an incredible payday. After an exhausting day of combing through countless pages of forgotten and crummy plays, Max finds what he is sure will be the ticket to sipping cool cocktails in Rio as a disgustingly rich man: “Springtime for Hitler.” And Max knows just the man to direct it. An outlandishly homosexual hack by the name of Roger De Bris (Stuart Marland), who imagines the work of Nazi-in-hiding Franz Liebkind (Peter Samuel) as a very, very gay musical romp featuring those misunderstood love-birds Adolf Hitler and Eva Braun.
Whereas the movie derived much of its humor by mining those dark realms of failure, greed and exploitation that are the underbelly of the entertainment business, the stage version’s charm is that it wraps up all that crude, vile stupidity in the very construct that it aims to ridicule. It holds you transfixed with big, fat, juicy musical numbers filled with the same intelligent and sexy comedy that made the movie such a smash. It smartly punctuates its themes with bawdy belt-outs like “When You Got It, Flaunt It”(performed with leggy vivaciousness and expert comedic timing by Renee Klapmeyer, who plays the much-expanded role of Ulla, the Scandinavian secretary and temptress) and balls-out (pun intended) stunners like “Keep It Gay” and “I Want To Be A Producer” (set in an accounting company sweatshop, of all places). The dance number featuring an army of walker-dependent old grannies hoofing it around a set made up of giant doilies is the perfect example of what the play masterfully achieves: a slightly sick sense of humor with more than a nod to classic burlesque and pure visual delight. This combination comes to a breathtaking climax in the “Springtime for Hitler” number featuring Frauleins with pretzels and sausages and beer steins on their heads and SS men forming a swastika in the middle of the stage. It’s a powerful work that can make you applaud such creations without feeling the least bit guilty for doing so.
Although Zero and Gene aren’t around, Amaral and Taylor and the rest of the crew do Mel Brooks proud with one raunchy, anarchic tour-de-friggin-force.
See The Producers at the Masonic Temple Theatre (500 Temple, Detroit). Call 313-832-2232 for ticket information. Ends Sunday, Jan. 11.E-mail Dan DeMaggio at [email protected].