Wednesday, May 21, 2008
Reproducing The Producers
There's always been something very meta about Mel Brooks's The Producers (through June 1 at the North Shore Music Theatre, above). It's a show about a musical so offensive that everyone takes it as camp that is itself a musical so offensive that everyone takes it as camp. If that sounds harsh, perhaps it's because The Producers, unlike its show-within-a-show, Springtime for Hitler, came wrapped in democratizing irony: everyone, the marketing insisted, eventually became the butt of one of Mel Brooks's Borscht-Belt jokes, so no one could be offended. This of course wasn't quite true: yes, Brooks blew raspberries at buxom Swedes and nebbishy Jews and racist Irish cops, but he dodged African-American stereotypes, while upping the ante considerably on the gay jokes (even revising the movie to squeeze his über-queen director into Springtime for Hitler): so much so, in fact, that The Producers became not so much a joke on Nazis as a poke at show queens. The New York production, of course, deracinated this new angle via Nathan Lane: after all, how could a show be homophobic with the screamingly nelly Lane as its lead? And how could a show feed into prejudice when its target was Nazism? Especially when it was being directed by a woman (Susan Stroman), and being staged in New York, for god's sake?
As we all know, this carefully targeted strategy worked. The Producers re-minted political incorrectness as schmaltz: it was taken as a nostalgic, hilariously ironic look at (all-too-true) stereotypes by a brassy mensch, and even became the perfect tonic to the fear and trembling that reigned after 9/11; these big, broad, bigoted jokes were American, goddamnit, and we don't really mean them, but we love them anyway! So take that, Osama bin Laden!
But a funny thing happened on the way to the North Shore. Somehow, some of that "irony" leaked out of the show, and there are weird moments in which The Producers teeters perilously close to being just as nasty as it wants to be. After all, you can practically hear that banjo from Deliverance echoing through the backwoods of Beverly, so I shouldn't have been surprised at the murmurs of shocked disapproval from the audience when the lisping, mincing "Carmen Ghia" and "Roger DeBris" (Stuart Marland, below) began tripping across the NSMT stage. True, the crowd minded its manners, and even for the most part eventually "got" the spirit of the thing; even though they hated fags, they slowly realized that this was all meant in fun. And the actors weren't actually gay; they were just playing people from New York, you know.
Sigh. Well, I know I can survive a little homophobia; haven't I been surviving it all my life? It's just that I'm a little dizzy from the spinning "we don't mean it-yes we do" tone of the show (and I really wish Brooks would try the same trick with, say, Mandingo!, or maybe Dessa Rose - it would be interesting to see Terry Byrne wrap her perm around that).
The trouble is, that even setting my outraged queeniness aside, I can't pretend that The Producers is really all that fabulous. Like Byrne, some critics have tried to work up an argument that the North Shore's in-the-round staging was problematic, and it was, at times, but only because, shorn of the proscenium spectacle lavished on it in New York, The Producers is revealed as pretty thin stuff: not only does the relentless thump of the punchlines grow wearying, but the score is pedestrian, the lyrics predictable, and the plot largely a convoluted excuse to get to "Springtime for Hitler" (which is the show's best song). Actually, contrary to Byrne's complaints, the choreography by Bill Burns was generally clever and resourceful in its aping of Stroman. But it didn't help that the North Shore's lead, Scott Davidson, played his exasperation whiningly straight, and in far too low and naturalistic a key. As a result, he had no chemistry with sidekick Jim Stanek, who styled Leopold Bloom (yeah, even Joyce gets ribbed) at a more appropriately broad, frenetic pace, or even Amy Bodnar, who was probably the show's canny highlight as the blonde, beautiful, boob-a-licious Ulla (above right). Luckily, everyone else had gotten the right memo: Stuart Marland, though he hewed closely to Gary Beach's famous performance, made a high-energy Roger de Bris, while Fred Berman (Carmen Ghia) and (especially) Madeleine Doherty (Hold-me Touch-me) made their broader-than-broad assignments genuinely funny. Meanwhile the hard-working chorus - always reliable at the NSMT - was dazzling as ever in a truly spectacular rogue's gallery of high-kicking ethnic smears and stereotypes.
To be fair, "Springtime for Hitler" was still a hoot, with its tap-dancing stormtroopers and showgirls with pretzels on their heads: maybe this protean number is all by itself worth the price of admission. Or maybe a personal command performance, sans the Beverly audience, might restore the broad-but-harmless, anything-goes sheen to the show. But then again, maybe it would still look like one great idea thwarted by a desperate desire to throw everything at the wall and see what sticks. Although I suppose that's not the North Shore's fault.