Someone should have said “no” to Susan Stroman:
No to commanding equipment with increasing unfamiliarity. No to allowing Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick to engage in overblown theatrics. No to having actors stare at the camera while performing. There’s been enough of the fourth wall broken over the years, from many of Mel Brooks’ movies such as “Blazing Saddles” and “Young Frankenstein”, to Robert Hayes’ “What a pisser,” in “Airplane!”
No to the camera following Nathan Lane as he something up. There’s nothing in that shot which merits that movement. No to spotlights following the actors as they dance. For Matthew Broderick’s “I Want To Be a Producer” number though, it’s reasonable since the number seems to happen in his imagination. And above all, no to being the director. Obviously, it was Universal’s intent to keep the production intact for audiences who didn’t see the stage show, but it’s not noble for the sake of profit. Just lazy. Consultant (since she directed the stage performances) and choreographer (her second job in this production) would have been fine. But ixnay on controlling the hearts and minds of people whose jobs she likely wasn’t too familiar with when she walked on the set, even with some presumed help from Brooks himself.
There is imagination, such as in a scene with old ladies tapping out rhythm with their walkers in the “Along Came Bialy” number which sees them knocked down like dominoes as Max Bialystock (Nathan Lane) grabs their checks and runs past the line, with a masterful switch from real New York to fantastical New York (zany, colorful sets by production designer Mark Friedberg, art director Peter Rogness, and set decorators Ellen Christiansen and Janine Pesce). There is endless, happy, and whimsical joy in “Keep It Gay” in which theater director Roger De Bris (such love for the role exuded by Gary Beach) and his associate Carmen Ghia (Roger Bart) despise depressing stage shows and wax lyrical on how they should be: “Keep it happy, keep it snappy, keep it gay!” The screenplay by Brooks and Thomas Meehan is thick with Borscht Belt humor, even throwing in an obligatory Village People reference in Roger’s apartment and in a moment where the police barge into Max’s office, Roger tells Carmen, “Back into the closet,” to which Carmen replies, “Ok!”
The lighthearted joy doesn’t last. Uma Thurman and Will Ferrell join the cast, with Thurman playing Swedish secretary Ulla and Ferrell as Nazi playwright Franz Liebkind. Ferrell’s got the wild eyes, the mannerisms, and the helmet for Franz. He wears it with twisted pride, showing that he can easily slip into a comedic role. Thurman on the other hand, gamely tries as Ulla. She has overt sexiness and a certain relish about the role, especially her Swedish accent. But her singing doesn’t have the determined “umph” you’d expect from a character like this. Sure, sure, I know she’s usually an actress and let’s face it, at this steady rate, we’ll one day see Ed Asner crooning a dirty ditty about cheese, a whip, socks, and a woman who loved all three. Decide for yourselves how that would go. But there’s only one of this musical and there’ll never be another. It can’t be attempted again.
Unfortunately, fans of the original film who bypassed the show may have some trouble setting aside those memories in order to give this new version a chance. Lane nearly jumps on Broderick just like Zero Mostel did to Gene Wilder (albeit a different brand of humor for Lane in which his Max looks more comedically desperate than wild-eyed and somewhat disturbing), and slaps and throws water on Broderick, with Broderick rightfully toned down since no one can replicate Wilder’s panicked exclamations that were so well-timed. But once again, it’s the curse of overacting and overdone shtick that does them in. “The Producers” doesn’t mark another shining moment for the movie musical. It’s novel only if you’re curious about what you missed on Broadway, but it ultimately disrespects cinema.
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