'The Producers' wows British critics in London

Posted: Thursday, November 11, 2004

LONDON After a rough Atlantic crossing, ''The Producers'' has landed on British shores with tides of laughter and a wave of relief.

London critics on Wednesday hailed the Mel Brooks musical the story of an unscrupulous showman trying to mount a surefire flop as a tonic for a gloomy West End weighed down by overwrought musicals and shadowed by several recent flops.

''To say that it unleashes an epidemic of bliss would be too mealy-mouthed,'' said The Independent's Paul Taylor in one of a slew of breathless reviews.

''From the opening number,'' wrote Charles Spencer in The Daily Telegraph, ''the audience rides a tidal wave of pleasure and after three delirious hours one is left stunned by a combination of unstoppable laughter and sheer happiness.''

The reviews will be a relief to producers after the show's choppy journey from Broadway, where it opened in 2001 and went on to win 12 Tonys. Richard Dreyfuss, the Oscar-winning actor lined up for the central role of unscrupulous showman Max Bialystock, left the West End production Oct. 18, four days before the start of preview performances.

The musical's producers said Dreyfuss, 57, was forced to abandon the physically demanding role because of complications from back surgery and a recurring shoulder injury.

London critics were united in praise of his replacement: Nathan Lane, Tony-winning star of the original Broadway production.

Some critics, including the Telegraph's Spencer, admitted to trepidation before opening night, noting that ''New York smash hits too often fail to repeat their magic once they transfer to the West End.''

They concluded that they need not have worried.

and saw in the show's exuberance a lesson for other West End producers.

It has been a tough autumn for London's West End, with many shows, even hits like ''Jerry Springer: The Opera,'' now struggling to fill seats and others, like Andrew Lloyd-Webber's gothic ''The Woman In White,'' garnering mixed reviews.

''What a relief it is to go to a musical and find that you are allowed to laugh again,'' wrote Spencer. ''It is a lesson Andrew Lloyd Webber needs to learn.''

The Guardian's Billington agreed. The show, he said, ''puts the comedy back in musical comedy.''

''After years of quasi-operatic musicals that have turned poverty and oppression into a showbiz spectacle, we are at last allowed to laugh,'' he said.

At Nazis, he could have added.

While the show's roots in vaudeville and the Great White Way may be foreign to British audiences, its comic centerpiece a kitschy Nazi musical called ''Springtime for Hitler'' hit the spot. Six decades after the end of World War II, the image of the strutting Nazi remains a durable comic stereotype in Britain. Just last month, German Foreign Minister Joshka Fischer accused the British media of portraying Germany as the land of the ''Prussian goose-step.''

If critics sounded one caveat, it was that Lane is due to perform only until Jan. 8. A replacement has not yet been announced.

''Heaven knows how the producers will replace the great Nathan Lane,'' said Spencer. The Independent's Taylor had a suggestion: ''The producers of 'The Producers' should plow their enormous profits into trying to clone him.''

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