Fresh Producers

Musical comedies were never that funny -- that is, until Mel Brooks came along. The master of irreverent silliness changed the very texture of Broadway when, in 2001, he turned his 1968 film The Producers into a Tony Award-winning musical comedy hit. He wrote the script with help from Thomas Meehan. At first, it seemed that a big part of the original production's success had to do with its hugely charismatic stars, Matthew Broderick and Nathan Lane. The pair turned their wacky characters Max Bialystock (Lane) and Leo Bloom (Broderick) into some of the funniest clowns ever to grace a Broadway stage. But the show has continued to thrive without its original leads (though both are now back on Broadway for a limited run). And the stars of the touring company of The Producers, now gracing the Hobby Center, ought to prove once and for all that the goofball characters at the story's center are without a doubt the funniest and most endearing knuckleheads you're likely to meet all year.

The Producers tells the story of Max Bialystock (Lewis J. Stadlen), a Broadway producer who can't come up with a hit. When the audience leaves his latest show, Funny Boy, A Musical of Hamlet, they sing that "it's the worst show in town." All isn't lost, however. Soon enough, Max's trusty accountant Leo Bloom (Alan Ruck of Spin City fame) innocently figures out that a producer could actually make more money with a flop than a hit. The idea appeals to Max, who has absolutely no scruples, and he comes up with a surefire plan. He'll call on his little-old-lady backers and raise buckets of money. Then he'll find the worst script and the worst director in town, put them together and end up a millionaire. Of course, he needs Leo to cook his books if the plan's going to work. So Max tempts his mild- mannered accountant, telling him that he can become a producer if he helps with the scheme.

Leo's been stuck at an accounting firm that's making his life miserable, and though he's always been too mousy to even think about breaking the law, he just can't let the opportunity pass him by. He sings about becoming a producer with great joy as gorgeous chorines strut their impossibly long legs around him.

Soon enough, we're introduced to the queeny hip-swishing men and big-boobed women who populate the world of theater. All of these creatures are the sort of grown-up cartoons that come along too rarely once you've passed the age of ten. There's Carmen Ghia (Josh Prince), the male "assistant" to director Roger DeBris (Lee Roy Reams). Prince is clearly having the time of his life as the bejeweled helper, wearing his black spandex pants skin-tight and wagging his rear end from side to side as he walks. There's also a blond named Ulla, played with va-va-voom sexiness by Charley Izabella King. Ulla is, most of all, Swedish. Her long, creamy legs reach all the way up to her lovely neckline, and she likes to have sex every day at 11 in the morning. She joins Leo and Max as their assistant and then becomes a star in their show.

The terrible script the men choose, Springtime for Hitler, was written by a hilarious Nazi named Franz (Fred Applegate). But the production's a surprise runaway hit, because everyone takes the Hitler-glorifying story as satire. This means, of course, that our producers are in big trouble with the law for fraud. But rest assured, all works out in the end. After all, this is Mel Brooks, one of the most prolific and perhaps strangest comic geniuses of our time.

As good as all the supporting characters are, there wouldn't be much of a show without the astonishing energies of Ruck and Stadlen. Ruck makes goofy dancing look like the best fun anyone could have, and he sings like a dream. Stadlen, who's utterly relentless throughout the two-and-a-half-hour show, attacks each of his numbers with childlike glee, grabbing hold of center stage and commanding our attention with each terrific number.

Of course, Susan Stroman's direction and choreography is the stuff of Broadway legend. Under her guidance, the show went on to win an unprecedented 12 Tony Awards. And it's easy to see why. We all love to laugh, and Mel Brooks, who has always been the silliest man in town, knows how to make everything he touches hysterical -- even the lowly musical.

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Lee Williams