When The Producers came out as a film in 1968, one of my theater profs joined the chorus of critics who couldn't praise it enough. The difference was in his... uh... unorthodox approach, let's call it.
"If the murder of six million Jews isn't funny," he gleefully declared at the top of his lungs, "nothing is funny!"
Jewish director Mel Brooks' cinematic send-up of Hitler's Third Reich sure is funny. And as the musical that knocked Broadway on its ass in 2001, it's one for the ages. It won very close to 482,000 awards the following year, including a record 12 Tonys (of those, co-author Brooks snagged three, including best score). Two companies now tour the U.S. with the show, which grosses about $1.5 mil a week on Broadway alone. A film is in the works, starring the original Broadway leads, Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick.
The Producers also saw its West Coast premiere in San Diego 18 months ago, setting a Civic Theatre ticket sales record for a musical.
But as you marvel this time at Nederlander's magnificent Broadway/San Diego entry, your own sense of history kicks in. Something else happened in the fall of 2001, something that evoked the specter of Hitlerian menace. In the wake of 9/11, Producers ticket sales tanked on Broadway, prompting New York's beleaguered mayor to quip on the sudden glut of good seats. And when the play was staged in L.A. last year, one critic wrote that it had lost its edge amid fallout from the attacks.
Horseflop, Brooks might say. In war and peace, the best defense is always a good offense. And this show is as deliciously offensive as you care. Brooks and co-writer Tom Meehan (Hairspray) skewer sexism, ageism, racism, homophobia, military madness and theatergoers' tastes like apples on an archery range. Parody begets parody, swallowing the 20th century's most notorious sociopath into the spoils of his own atrocities.
Down-and-out Broadway producer Max Bialystock (Bob Amaral) and putzy accountant Leo Bloom (Andy Taylor) plot to bilk their longtime sponsors out of $2 million for their next show. Their plan is to find the worst play ever written, hire the worst director and actors in town, and close in one night on the worst possible terms, pocketing the difference. They wind up with Springtime for Hitler, an outrageous piece of dogbreath that Roger DeBris (San Diegan Stuart Marland) directs in the manner of MGM's sappy Golden Age musicals.
The thing is drowning in flamingly gay innuendo-including, of course, the role of the führer (Marland). "Heil myself!... I'm the German Ethel Merman, don'tcha know," he simps in the title song.
One problem: The critics and audiences eat it up, predicting it'll run for 20 years. An extortion charge and a hasty trip to Rio follow-but it all comes out in the cosmic wash. Director/choreographer Susan Stroman expertly exploits the balls-to-the-wall satire, as does her tech staff. Even the set pieces become major characters, manifest in everything from audible tumblers on an office safe to the guttural report from a Nazi-issue motorbike.
I had wondered how the crew would duplicate the movie's most uproarious chorus-line sequence, which involves a classic piece of film editorship. My concern was groundless-it's literally done here with mirrors. You'll see what I mean. Then you'll keel over, your eyes filled with tears and your face eternally set in an ear-to-ear grin.
Brooks, 78, hasn't sacrificed a single belly laugh since his '70s film heyday (Blazing Saddles, Young Frankenstein). Now, however, he finds himself in the additional role of international ambassador. A new generation of despots licks its chops at the thought of America's defeat-and with The Producers, Brooks trumps their fury as brilliantly as that of the madmen who preceded them.
Please, oh please, immerse yourself in this hilarious historical commentary on the insanity of war as only live theater conveys it. You will not walk out the same door you came in. In an age so deeply colored with the prospect of humanity's self-destruction, your attendance is almost a civic obligation.
This review is based on the opening-night performance of Aug. 24. The Producers runs through Sept. 5 at the Civic Theatre, 202 C. St. $34.50-$83. 619-570-1100.