Sassy `Producers' fits fine at Hippo

TheaterReview

February 12, 2004|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

It's during the big second-act production number of The Producers that the full impact of the newly renovated Hippodrome Theatre hits you. That's when the former vaudeville palace comes most vibrantly back to life.

The number is called, of all things, "Springtime for Hitler," but more on that later. The reason it revives the spirit of the Hippodrome is that, contained within this one splendiferously comic, over-the-top production number are salutes to everything and everyone from the Ziegfeld Follies to A Chorus Line, Judy Garland to Ethel Merman.

In other words, there's a hunk of show business history on stage in that number. And what better way to show off a theater that housed so much show biz history and is now primed to contribute more?

The Producers is rife with elements that would have been right at home in the heyday of vaudeville: corny jokes, broad physical comedy, tap dancing, even an animal act (OK, it uses stuffed birds, but a funnier bunch of fake pigeons would be hard to find).

Adapted for the stage by Mel Brooks and Thomas Meehan from Brooks' 1968 movie of the same name, The Producers made Broadway history of its own in 2001 when it won a record 12 Tony Awards. The touring production that has inaugurated the restored Hippodrome boasts a cast equal in size - 22 - to its Broadway counterpart and equal in verve.

The show is big and brash, theatrically savvy and comedically lowbrow, but it's an old softy at heart. A send-up of traditional musical comedies, it's a traditional musical comedy itself, albeit a highly irreverent one. Max Bialystock, a Broadway producer down on his luck, and Leo Bloom, his timid accountant, concoct a scheme to make a fortune by mounting a deliberate flop - a tasteless travesty called Springtime for Hitler, a Gay Romp with Adolf and Eva at Berchtesgaden.

Heading a cast devoid of star names, Bob Amaral imbues Bialystock with characteristics reminiscent of both the movie's Zero Mostel (grandiloquence) and Broadway's Nathan Lane (mania). But Amaral also invests the character with qualities of his own - a sure sense of comic timing that's especially evident in his deadpan double-takes, and a character actor's face with expressions that suggest a cross between a spoiled child and a mournful pug dog.

Bloom is by definition a less showy role. Andy Taylor does a decent job - and considerably more than that vocally - but his Bloom never blossoms into a distinctive enough personality to make you root for him.

There is, however, much else to root for, laugh at and applaud in this production, for which Susan Stroman has carefully re-created her clever Broadway direction and choreography. Consider, for instance, the gold-coin-encrusted chorus girls who pop out of file cabinets in Bloom's office reverie, "I Wanna Be a Producer." Or the libidinous little old ladies (Bialystock's backers) who dance their hearts out, rat-a-tat-tatting the beat with their walkers in "Along Came Bialy." Or those aforementioned pigeons, pets of Springtime playwright Franz Liebkind, who has trained them to not only bill and coo to the tune of "Deutschland Uber Alles," but also to do the Nazi salute.

William Ivey Long's fanciful costumes are also glittering replicas of his hilarious Broadway originals, from the Chrysler Building-inspired gown worn by Springtime's flamboyant director, Roger DeBris, to the showgirls' Germanic Ziegfeld-esque get-ups in "Springtime," complete with headdresses in the shapes of a giant pretzel, a beer stein and bratwurst.

Among the supporting players, Ida Leigh Curtis is a bombshell with heart as Bloom's eventual love interest. Bill Nolte's Liebkind is all the funnier for taking himself so seriously. And Stuart Marland's flouncing Roger DeBris is amusing, though he, more than anyone else in the cast, is too obvious a clone of his role's Broadway originator, in this case, Tony winner Gary Beach.

Brooks' songs - which amply augment the three he composed for the movie - are hummable and laden with funny lyrics ("Heil myself/Watch my show/I'm the German Ethel/Merman, Dontcha know!" ).

The book Brooks and Meehan crafted makes some wise alterations to the movie. Chief among these are the rewritten opening, which leaves no doubt about Bialystock's crass nature or the type of schlocky flops he produces, as well as the elimination of the movie's character of a flower-power-spouting hippie whom Bialystock and Bloom cast as Hitler.

The musical also moves the time period from the late 1960s to 1959, a year that produced two of Broadway's greatest hits, Gypsy and The Sound of Music. These shows exemplify the golden-era musicals Brooks and Meehan skewer in their satirical tribute. Brooks has said you have to love something to parody it. And with the reopening of the Hippodrome coming only days before Valentine's Day, The Producers - a production too large to fit in any other Baltimore theater - fits as neatly on the Hippodrome stage as a Valentine nestled in an envelope.

Even the show's first words, "Opening night ... It's opening night!," seem happily prophetic, ushering in the first of many grand opening nights to come.

Producers

Where: Hippodrome Theatre, 12 N. Eutaw St.

When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays, 6:30 p.m. Sundays; matinees at 2 p.m. Saturdays and 1 p.m. Sundays; through March 14

Tickets: $34-$79

Call: 410-481-SEAT

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