Review: The Producers at Miami Beach's Gleason Theater

"When you wish upon a star." Well, I actually hadn't been wishing upon a star. I had been wishing for stars to play Leo and Max in this national tour of THE PRODUCERS. However, as heavenly as stars would have been, the show is indeed the star of this fabulous national tour.

THE PRODUCERS became a theatrical legend before it ever played its first New York preview. THE PRODUCERS place in history was cemented when it won more Tony awards than any other show in Broadway history. In my lifetime there have not been too many genuine Broadway phenomena. I've never gotten to see THE PRODUCERS on Broadway. I attended tonight's opening performance at Miami Beach's Jackie Gleason Theater with great anticipation, excitement and a sense of impending joy.

Can any show live up to the hype and the ecstatic reviews THE PRODUCERS received when it opened on Broadway? Yes, this show certainly can. From the moment the overture began, the theater filled with an air of excitement. We knew we were about to have our theatrical socks knocked off.

I must return to a prior point. As previously mentioned, there was a certain degree of disappointment and trepidation in this critic's mind because this national tour of THE PRODUCERS "has no stars."

Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick created "a happening" when THE PRODUCERS opened on Broadway. They famously returned to the Broadway production for a few months, a couple of years after the show opened, to bring the box office back to that beloved 100% plus capacity. Mr. Broderick and Mr. Lane are also, of course, starring in the upcoming film version of THE PRODUCERS. So, it is understandable that any theatergoer might be "most pleased" to see THE PRODUCERS starring Lane and Broderick. Barring that, one might expect that the parts of Bialystock and Bloom would be played by stars known on Broadway, or by performers with name recognition from the world of film, television or recordings. Well cast stars playing Leo and Max would have truly torpedoed this divine production into theatrical orbit. Happily, bliss is still found at THE PRODUCERS without stars.

The team behind this national tour of THE PRODUCERS has rather cannily "downplayed" the lead roles of Max and Leo in their Florida advertising. Until this Sunday, our major newspapers featured ads for THE PRODUCERS, but the ads never pictured the characters of Bialystock and Bloom. They were full of images of Ulla, the nazi playwright, Roger De Bris in his dress and the "little old ladies dancing with their walkers." Suddenly, this past Sunday, the first ad appeared that was reminiscent of the original PRODUCERS "poster." The ad displayed the names of Bob Amaral and Andy Taylor where Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick originally appeared.

Amaral and Taylor are both talented, experienced theater professionals and indeed are often delightful in THE PRODUCERS. They zing those Mel Brooks lines and shtick as they should and both have more than fine singing voices. Andy Taylor is a particularly engaging lovely voiced Leo Bloom. However, this show was constructed around the "star wattage" of the Broadway originals. Amaral and Taylor are certainly more than fine as Max and Leo, but their lack of that special stardust throws this production just a shade off kilter. One needn't worry. This show is so strongly constructed and directed that when it does not have stars, the show itself becomes the star.

Stuart Marland as Roger De Bris, was indeed very fine if not particularly inspired. His performance as the gay director who goes on to star in Springtime for Hitler never quite soared to the heights of the material. No one "stole" this show. Rich Affannato as Carmen Ghia was an absolute comic gem. The entire "Roger De Bris" team seemed to have their own special and wonderful electricity going on in this show. Ida Leigh Curtis as Ulla exerts magic power that propels every move she makes on stage. Every word she says and every note she sings, seems a gift from theatrical Heaven. She is magnificent. She is likely the ultimate Ulla. Bill Nolte as Franz Liebkind is a scene stealer and audience favorite who's nazi playwright will not soon be forgotten by this evening's audience. His singing voice is as grand as his pet pigeons are riotous.

Speaking of pet nazi pigeons, which is a fine segue way when reviewing a Mel Brooks show, kudos must be paid to the joyously talented, wonderfully versatile ensemble which is the back bone of this production. They play 'em all. The aristocratic theatergoers, the blind violinist, the chorus girls, the anatomically gifted choreographer, the accountants in Leo's office, the little old ladies, the judge, the cops, the prisoners, the Springtime for Hitler cast, the gay, deep-voiced De Bris choreographer Shirley Markowitz (the delightful Pamela Dayton in one of her many Producers roles), etc. What a splendid ensemble! Bravo. While we're handing out the bravos, long and loud bravos to the lush and lavish Robin Wagner Scenic Designs. What a pleasure to have our visual senses assaulted by Wagner's fabulous artistry, when too many shows out there are getting minimalist or black box productions. Costume designer William Ivey Long had a ton of characters to dress in this show. To say his work here is sensational is to state the obvious and the expected. His costumes are stunning, often quite sexy and often quite hysterical. Lighting designer Peter Kaczorowski is a master of his craft brought to new heights under the wizardry of director Susan Strohman. Mr. Kaczorowki's work here is exquisite.

THE PRODUCERS is verrrrry funny. In fact, it is the funniest musical I recall seeing since PROMISES, PROMISES in the late 1960s. Mel Brooks and Thomas Meehan are credited with writing the book of this musical. One suspects Mr. Meehan's primary contribution as book writer was the show's construction. The construction of a musical comedy is a crucial endeavor. Few other artistic creations have the potential frailty of a faultily constructed musical. Mr. Meehan has proven to be a master of musical theater construction. His ANNIE should be required viewing for students of musical theater structure. Mel Brooks has, in spots, used lines and even theatrical devices that are not always brand new. This is not a problem for THE PRODUCERS. The lines and devices "work" and delight the audience. Is there anyone out there that doesn't know this show's primary plot? Max Bialystock, a producer living in despair gets an idea from his accountant, Leo Bloom, that he can make more money by producing a flop that is "over financed," than by trying to produce a hit. Leo joins Max's devious plan, with Max raising the money from dozens of "little old ladies" whom Max favors with his, well, let's just say he favors them with his favors. Things turn into a tailspin when Max and Leo's "surefire flop," Springtime for Hitler, unexpectedly turns into a Broadway smash hit.

Along with the basic story based on Mel Brook's Oscar winning screenplay for the original nonmusical film, THE PRODUCERS (which starred Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder) the musical provides us with a treasure chest of theatrical nirvana courtesy of Broadway's reigning premier choreographer/director, Susan Strohman. Strohman continues her run of great work with THE PRODUCERS. Her director's hand is as sure and firm in the dialogue scenes as it is in her delightfully delirious, inspired and often, simply brilliant choreography. Stro's "little old lady" dance with walkers is the kind of number that musical theater lovers often dream they will see. It is that inspired and perfect. Her staging of I Wanna Be A Producer is amazing. Intricate set changes abound, seamlessly woven into theatrical gold in this riveting and unforgettable production number. Her bringing to life the "Springtime for Hitler" song's famed overhead Busby Berkeley style shot of the dancers in swastika formation, is as funny, spectacular and clever as it is tasteless. This IS a Mel Brooks show, so anyone looking for a theatrical entertainment of "great taste" had best seek their joys outside of THE PRODUCERS.

Mel Brooks has provided a good score for this show. It is serviceable, pleasant, and at times somewhat exciting and on occasion even moving. Mr. Brooks' score will not go down in history as one of the musical theater's great scores or even near great scores. But, it does indeed work just fine for the true musical comedy that is THE PRODUCERS.

THE PRODUCERS is also a Valentine to Broadway, to the theater, to musicals, to show biz in general. There are many "insider" type lines and happenings in this show. Fear not. Those who don't "fully get" some of the merriment provided to seemingly please the most seasoned theatergoers would still reap great pleasure spending time at THE PRODUCERS.

I only wish Max and Leo had indeed been played by "stars." Again, Amaral and Taylor are more than fine professionals. They certainly deliver their performances with joy and gusto and they work incredibly hard to please. They are however, simply not stars and it kinda shows around the edges. Stars would have put this production onto another planet of theatrical joy. But, this show delivered and it is clear it was sent via special delivery. Right now, on this planet, Broadway musical comedies do not get better than THE PRODUCERS. Mel Brooks and Susan Strohman are indeed the truest stars of this musical gem.

THE PRODUCERS last performance at Miami Beach's Jackie Gleason Theater is April 3, 2005.

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Beau Higgins Currently spending his time between New York and Florida, Beau was born to a theatrical family in Brooklyn. He studied drama at the Lee Strasberg Theater Institute and at HB Studios. He studied theater singing with Julia Sperratore and Helen Gallagher. Beau later taught drama at the Lincoln Center Square for the Arts. It was at this time Beau began working with the Theater Development Fund and helped found New York's famed HALF PRICE TICKET BOOTH. Early in his career, Beau was screen tested and contracted for Warner Brothers. He co-hosted, an early cable variety series on Manhattan's Teleprompter channel. At this time he directed the Johnny Specca musical, SEX IS..? at the Lincoln Center Library Theater. Beau has performed Off-Broadway in FAT FELL DOWN, The Comic Strip Theater's LITTLE LULU AND THE INVISIBLE INK and WILL THE REAL ZOOPERMAN PLEASE STAND UP. Around the country he has delighted audiences with his performances in ANYTHING GOES, THE APPLE TREE, GUYS & DOLLS, and HELLZAPOPPIN! He sang for New York audiences at such cabarets as The Duplex and Upstairs at the Downstairs. He has had numerous television appearances but is most proud to have been a winning contestant on the game shows JACKPOT and THE $20,000 PYRAMID.


 
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