A Chorus Grind

Mel Brooks' Broadway smash should've stayed there.

Take the sword from Uma Thurman's hands, and the Kill Bill babe suddenly seems uncertain of how to move. She's a samurai killer, not a dancer. Take Matthew Broderick and Nathan Lane off the stage and away from a live audience, and there's essentially the same problem with The Producers (which opens Sunday, Dec. 25, at the Metro and other theaters). It's a strenuously performed adaptation that feels as exhausting for us to watch as it probably was for Broderick and Lane, reprising their stage roles, to perform. The movie is so aggressively determined to entertain us that it seems directed at the audience snoozing through Rumor Has It . . . in the theater next door. It's a musical comedy endurance test, with Lane's sweat and spittle practically reaching you through the movie screen. A stage creature through and through, he just can't play small. Even if director Susan Stroman—who also directed the 2001 Broadway hit—tried to move the camera some distance back to dissipate that energy, he probably chased it all over the soundstage until he could jump on the lens and hump it. The story of The Producers you already know from Mel Brooks' considerably subtler 1968 movie: Theatrical impresario Max Bialystock (Lane) and schlemiel accountant Leo Bloom (Broderick) conspire to produce the worst Broadway disaster in history, then abscond with the $2 million stake—couldn't we have adjusted for inflation?—gigolo Max has hustled from all the nice little undersexed widows in Manhattan. Meanwhile, Leo develops a thing for the Swedish showgirl (Thurman) cast for her pointy breasts and round heels. And Will Ferrell's neo-Nazi playwright stomps around in lederhosen and helmet, occasionally brandishing a Luger to make our stars cower. Thurman and Ferrell are the obvious concessions to a younger, less gay, non-Playbill-reading demographic, but neither is what you'd call an impact player here. Thurman's got yards of flesh, the legs of Cyd Charisse, but no choreographer could connect them fluidly to her brain. As the author of the panegyric Springtime for Hitler, Ferrell is actually upstaged by a mechanical pigeon that raises its right wing in salute to der führer. The windup bird and a gay choreographer's codpiece—about the size of a hedgehog—get the biggest laughs before the centerpiece stage number of the show within the show. After that, about 90 minutes in, you're too tired to watch the movie slump through its tired third act. thoroughly retro, The Producers is set in Broadway's twilight decade of the '50s (when Brooks was working in New York's nascent television industry, not theater). Part of the fun of his movie original of The Producers was that it was mocking the seediness of the Great White Way, burying the fabulous invalid with spadefuls of spoof. But it's also a period that Stroman, a Broadway veteran, reveres, and you can't have your cake and hit someone in the face with it at the same time. She confuses revival with ridicule. Her camera placements are too respectfully frontal and her scenes too set-centric to break free of the proscenium (although you could say the same of all the great movie musicals). She cares enough to show us the dancers' steps more or less intact (unlike Chicago, which put somebody else's legs on Richard Gere). Yet when she opens up Leo's Dickensian accounting firm into his Fred Astaire fantasy number "I Wanna Be a Producer," you wanna see it in three dimensions in a real theater: the chorus girls, the movable sets, the stagecraft. Still, the songs are all winners. It doesn't matter if Brooks couldn't notate the music to "We Can Do It" or "Heil Myself," the guy is a genius noodler—his melodies and lyrics are a model of accessible harmony and humor. There's no Andrew Lloyd Webber bombast, no Stephen Sondheim reach-for-my-thesaurus remove. He's delightfully lowbrow, unlike Rodgers and Hammerstein, and wonderfully direct, like the Ramones. In this respect, Brooks' swishiest stereotypes actually feel freshest here. Playing the show's flaming director and his mincing manservant, Gary Beach and Roger Bart give us a Low Camp reprieve from the High Homosexual Purpose of Brokeback Mountain—which, come to think of it, might be Brooks' next lampoon. He could even call it Homos on the Range. bmiller@seattleweekly.com

 
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