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The Producers

Before Mel Brooks became known for his films parodying genres like Blazing Saddles, Young Frankenstein and High Anxiety, he wrote and directed arguably one of the funniest films of modern times. Thirty years later he turned it into a full-fledged Broadway musical, and now The Producers has been, not exactly remade, but transferred from film to stage to film by Susan Stroman.

For fans of the original film, this may seem redundant. Though the stage show did veer in the third act, it still owed a lot to the original brilliance of Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder.

There. I've said it. Just as in the road companies, whoever plays Max has to make a self-deprecating remark about being no Nathan Lane, now we have to acknowledge that Lane himself is no Mostel. Luckily, Lane is an actor that takes Max Bialystock's advice to heart: "if you've got it, flaunt it."

Like Rent earlier this year, The Producers exists as a record of brilliant performances in a show that once was credited for "saving" Broadway. As such, it has some transporting moments, and some that just don't work because director Stroman has an occasionally difficult time adjusting to film.

Numbers like "I Want To Be a Producer" start to play with the possibilities of being in the cinema, but ultimately, Stroman makes it feel literally stagebound. Sure, Matthew Broderick sings about working on Broadway, so maybe that's forgivable.

When Stroman simply takes her original choreography for "Little Old Lady Land" and puts it in Central Park, though, it's a waste of talent. Included in that waste of talent: Andrea Martin, whose cameo has gotten cut to her just being a piece of a faux septuagenarian chorus line. Unfortunately, it calls attention to the artifice of younger dancers doing a silly number that just doesn't seem as fun onscreen.

Lane works, no question, and his show-stopping number "Betrayed" still has a lot of the power he had on stage, even though it's still set in a tiny little cell. It's one of the few numbers that feels like it needs that little hold and pause for the audience to applaud.

The actor's persona has always been out-sized (just as his eyebrows) and he has the timing of a classic vaudeville comic. As a faded Broadway producer reduced to seducing senior citizens, he makes desperation funny. Better yet, he also makes the lines his own. If there's a nod to the original, it's in the thinning of his hair to mirror Mostel's appearance.

The only problem with Lane is in fitting him opposite Matthew Broderick. On stage, audiences may forgive the fact that he appears to be a slightly smaller man. Broderick's Leo Bloom then becomes an even bigger coward than before, because Lane may be loud and bombastic, but he is not particularly intimidating.

Of course, like the dance numbers, Broderick has been directed to be pretty much the way he was in live theater, and occasionally that gets annoying. For a character as crucial as Leo, we need to get a flash that he might function as a real human being. But Broderick's delivery is all rhythm and vocal tics, little actual character.

It becomes readily apparent when the film shifts into the production of Springtime For Hitler, the surefire bomb that Bialystock and Bloom use to perpetrate their fraud. It's longer here than in Brooks' original film, too, which isn't a waste of time - Brooks just keeps tweaking musical conventions, and Stroman has one great visual joke juxtaposing stormtroopers with chorus boys. Otherwise, though, there's no difference in performance style between the campy action of the show-within-a-show and the supposed real life.

Yet for the other actors reprising their roles, it fits. There's no other way for gay stereotypes Roger De Bris (Gary Beach) and Carmen Ghia (Roger Bart) to be. It may not be very advanced or politically correct, but let's admit it, it's funny. Heck, they've even got Jai from Queer Eye as a houseboy, so it must be okay.

The newcomers to the production are clearly there to bolster the marquee value with moviegoers, with mixed results. Uma Thurman can't sing, but she dances passably and shakes admirably. As the pathetic former Nazi turned musical writer Franz Liebkind, Will Ferrell brings the commitment level that he lacked in Bewitched. The role was a cartoon character in the original film, and it's to Ferrell's credit that he manages to make it a different cartoon than Kenneth Mars did.

Strangely, that Nazi stuff seems to have lost the power to shock. In the decades since the original film, the concept of a campy musical about World War II seems old hat, and Mel Brooks himself has a lot to do with that. It may stretch modern audiences' suspension of disbelief to accept that anyone wouldn't have gotten how deliriously stupid Springtime For Hitler is, yet because of that joke, Germany banned The Producers for years.

With everyone singing and dancing all the time in this version, the shock value is further blunted. It still has its fun moments, and of course, fans of the Broadway show will be thrilled by the film.

If you're a fan of the original, still give this a look. The Producers the musical has new things to offer, including the best end title "monkey" of the year. If you haven't seen the original, see both.


Derek McCaw

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