"The Producers," billed as "the new Mel Brooks musical," isn't so new anymore; it opened on Broadway to an explosion of huzzahs in the spring of 2001. Yet even if you're forced to wait around for the life of the party, isn't everything forgiven the minute he floats through the door? What, after all, is a year or three? "The Producers" is here at last in Washington, with its brass, cheek and boobs-in-brownshirts jokes riotously intact.
Brooks's achievement -- and let's be real, though the credits list writers and directors and stuff, this musical screams "Brooks!" the way that ketchup bottle shouts "Heinz!" -- shows little of the corrosive wear and tear of life on the road. If you caught Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick in their celebrated run in New York, more power to you. But if your introduction to this sublime act of insanity is Lewis J. Stadlen and Alan Ruck as, respectively, libidinous Max Bialystock and dysfunctional Leo Bloom, know that you've been delivered into capable hands.
Given the oppressively downbeat tenor of the news from overseas and the exhausting drone of the election cycle, the capital has earned an evening of cockeyed mischief. "The Producers," which has set up shop in the Kennedy Center Opera House for the summer, satisfies in gratifying waves a craving for meaninglessness. And it's as close to a Broadway experience as you're likely to encounter this far south of Times Square. The Opera House may not be a perfect fit; some of Robin Wagner's appealing sets look puny on its immense stage. Still, apart from some audibility issues that were apparent at the show's first performance here -- too many of Brooks's coarsely clever lyrics are garbled in actors' accents and uneven miking -- the production retains the smart-aleck effervescence that convulses even the most jaded of audiences.
"The Producers" is not a show you'd call subtle. Uh, no, not when a pricelessly effeminate character hisses his S's as if imitating an escape of compressed oxygen. Or when the storm-trooping chorus line forms, a la the kaleidoscopic Busby Berkeley extravaganzas of yore, a revolving swastika. Or when a buxom showgirl promenades (for better and wurst) in a bonnet with a sausage on top. Or when a chorus of carrier pigeons, aware of the rise but not the fall of the Third Reich, coos to "Deutschland Uber Alles." (The musical's wildest conceit may be Brooks's notion of a Nazi finding refuge with his birds in, of all places, Greenwich Village.)
The unexpurgated feel of "The Producers" is such a tonic for a society in which taking offense has become a national pastime. Brooks goosesteps where others fear to tiptoe. The show is based on his subversive 1968 movie of the same title (and to be born again on the big screen as this musical version) about, well, you know, a leering, larcenous Broadway producer who dreams up a scheme to defraud investors and cash in by mounting the most tasteless musical of all time, "Springtime for Hitler."
I guess it must be pointed out that Brooks and the libretto's co-author, Thomas Meehan, scandalously stereotype and/or ridicule every category on the census form, and then some: gay men, Irish cops, Jews, lesbians, Scandinavians, accountants, Russian dictators, Nazi sympathizers, lonely old ladies, prison inmates and FDR. If your sensibilities are bruised by intimations of octogenarian sex, or outrageous punning, or the Village People, your time might be better spent tatting a new doily for the harmonium. For everyone of lighter heart and brighter countenance, though, being subjected to Brooks's irrepressible essence is as close as musical comedy gets to spiritual fulfillment.
The very pleasant score falls this side of transcendent. On the other hand, it reeks of Tin Pan Alley know-how -- much of the show is a homage to old-style Broadway professionalism. A few pretty ballads sparkle through: "That Face," " 'Til Him." The German parodies, performed by demented Franz Liebkind (Fred Applegate), brilliantly cut sterile oompah culture down to size. And there is undeniable dazzle in the production numbers, especially the delirious "Springtime for Hitler," staged with consummate schmaltz by director-choreographer Susan Stroman.
It would be difficult to make the case that any cast member erases the memory of a role's originator. But the pairing of Lee Roy Reams and Harry Bouvy as the flamboyant director Roger Debris and his "common-law" assistant, Carmen Ghia, works beautifully. Bouvy, employing more swish than a bolt of gold lame, steals a scene with an exit that would make Makarova look like a graceless lump. Reams is at his best in "Springtime for Hitler"; if Gary Beach, Broadway's Roger, was an unforgettable singing Hitler, Reams is his dancing counterpart. Nothing like watching a gypsy of an Adolf doing jazz hands.
Charley Izabella King's Ulla, the Swedish bombshell, has the killer bod and daffy Europeanness, even if the accent sounds a degree too put on. As Franz, Applegate is suitably certifiable; a tad more attention to diction is needed here, too.
Leo and Max must assimilate each other's performances as if they were Laurel and Hardy. Or maybe Bogie and Bacall. This is really their love story, after all, and Ruck and Stadlen do establish the rapport that takes the required touching turn by evening's end. Ruck possesses a sweet baritone that's easy on the ears and matches up with the tender Leo he conjures. He is tripped up only at the spot in the story that all Leos must dread, the early scene in which he has to re-create the infantile breakdown performed to perfection in the movie by Gene Wilder. "I'm wet and I'm hysterical" is a line, apparently, that no other actor on the planet is capable of making his own.
Stadlen is more of an imp -- and more lithe, in a Jackie Gleason sort of way -- than Lane was. (With his dark eyes and mustache, he even bears a slight resemblance to the legendary maverick producer David Merrick.) He doesn't have the special tool on his belt that Lane kept at the ready, an innate capacity for self-mockery, and so the portrayal isn't quite as uproarious. But putting the character through his delicious paces, seducing sex-starved dowagers and befriending fascist crackpots, Stadlen makes for a gruffly roguish Max. He's a credit to amoral hacks everywhere.
Some people say they find "The Producers" overloaded with insider showbiz humor, but I don't see it. What's more entertaining than pillorying the world of entertainment? Brooks does it with an effortlessness that makes rank gaucherie hilarious. How does Ulla put it? Oh yeah: When you got it, flaunt it.
The Producers, music and lyrics by Mel Brooks; book by Brooks and Thomas Meehan. Directed and choreographed by Susan Stroman. Sets, Robin Wagner; costumes, William Ivey Long; lighting, Peter Kaczorowski; sound, Steve Canyon Kennedy; orchestrations, Doug Besterman; music supervision and arrangements, Glen Kelly. With Pam Bradley, Daniel Herron, Michael Thomas Holmes, Nancy Johnston, Jessica Sheridan, Bernie Yvon, David Havasi, Jerald Vincent. Approximately 2 hours 45 minutes. Through Aug. 22 at the Kennedy Center Opera House. Call 202-467-4600 or visit www.kennedy-center.org.