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|Written by Kevin Johns|
|Monday, 30 June 2008 19:00|
Broderick, of course, played the title character in John Hughes’s classic 1986 film Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, and therein lies much of the problem. After playing one of the coolest cats ever to grace the silver screen, Broderick in later years decided to reinvent himself as a certifiably geeky loser in films such as Election and Inspector Gadget. And no one wants see that. It's like pulling into a gas station and realizing that the balding dude with the beer belly working his filthy hands across the cash register is that super-cool best friend that you totally looked up to middle school.
The Ferris Bueller baggage is likely a heavy load for Broderick to carry; especially when Mr. Sarah Jessica Parker’s real life persona is much closer to the inept losers he now plays, than to the epitome of ‘80s cool he once embodied. It’s almost as though he feels guilty for fooling us into thinking he was once cool, and now feels the need to self flagellate his nerdyness in film after film. Yet try as he might to become a modern Jimmy Stewart-styled everyman, he's really just become John Cusack lite.
His performance throughout The Producers is grating enough on its own, but when placed next to Nathan Lane's mugging, it becomes nearly unbearable. Then there is Will Ferrell, who seems as though he has stumbled out of one of those so-bad-its-surreal SNL skits and into the film. The actors are unlikeable, the humour doesn't work, the art direction is gaudy, and everyone involved seems to have a disgustingly smug smile that reads, "I won a Tony, I can do anything." Unfortunately, as the makers of Tommy, Hair, Rent, etc., can attest, translating Broadway hits to cinema isn’t exactly easy, regardless of how many Tonys you have on your shelf.
Despite hating the film, when I saw that the Neptune Theatre, nestled in the heart of downtown Halifax, was staging The Producers, I decided to take a chance and give it a shot, if the price was right. There was no way in hell I was going to pay over $50 to see The Producers, but after some sweet-talking, I was able to finagle some $15 seats in the back row of the theatre. Over the phone, the box office attendant tentatively informed me that in those seats, due to the overhang of the balcony, I would miss a couple of funny moments played downstage. "No problem," I told her. She went on to inform me that there was a railing that would most likely also block my view. My wife, sensing the direction my phone conversation was going, asked, "Are these going to be the worst seats ever?" "Yes," I responded.
As it turned out, I was wrong. Despite being Atlantic Canada’s largest regional theatre, the Neptune is hardly comparable in size to the National Arts Centre that I am accustomed to. The Neptune’s main hall sits just 500 people, meaning that even back row seats at the top of the balcony are still great seats. (I sat in similar seats for an NAC performance of The Phantom of the Opera, and when the Phantom’s mask was taken away to reveal his horrific visage, I was seated so far from the stage that I was forced to turn to the binocular-holding stranger next to me and ask, "Is he ugly or something?")
Originally known as The Strand and designed by Nova Scotia's first professional architect, Andrew Cobb, the theatre is reputed to be the first vaudeville house in Canada constructed specifically as a theatre, and it has been staging performances since 1915. Renamed The Neptune, by 1963 it was the only Canadian theatre operating all 52 weeks of the year. The Neptune has had relatively sustained success for nearly a century, and judging from the performance of The Producers that I witnessed, it’s easy to see why.
The play was fantastic. Stripped of Broderick’s Ferris Bueller baggage and the rest of the film’s Hollywood excess, one is left with a biting satire so hilariously offensive that you can’t look away from the stage.
Adapted from Mel Brooks’s original 1968 film of the same name, The Producers tells the story of a bombastic Broadway producer, Max Bialystock, and his nerdy accountant, Leo Bloom, who realize that they can make more money from a flop than they can from a hit. They set out to produce the worst play ever made, and settle upon a neo-Nazi musical entitled, Springtime for Hitler: a Gay Romp with Adolf and Eva at Berchtesgaden. Max and Leo then hire a flamboyant gay man and his Village People-esque team of technicians to choreograph and direct it.
Part of what makes Brooks’s musical such a success (and why it failed so miserably when it was adapted to film) is the self-reflexive nature of much of the humour. When Bialystock screws old ladies in order to get money to finance his plays, the joke works doubly in the theatrical setting because the majority of the audience is invariably made up of senior citizens. (Community theatres like the Neptune rely largely on seasonal subscribers for their revenue, most of whom are retirees). This aspect of the humour was totally lost when the play became a Hollywood production that cost millions of dollars to make; millions that were not invested by little old ladies, but banks, corporate investors and movie studios.
In addition, unlike Hollywood cinema, musical theatre is generally acknowledged as being especially attractive to gay audiences and performers. As such, you really can’t truly appreciate the humour of having a flaming queer play Adolf in Springtime for Hitler until you have witnessed uniquely theatrical decisions, such as the casting of an obviously gay actor to play heterosexual Eugene in Neil Simon’s Brighton Beach Memoirs at the Ottawa Little Theatre. While the lyrics "Keep it sunny, keep it funny, keep it gay!" come off as a lame play on words in the film, on stage the song morphs into a hilarious and fourth wall-breaking comment on theatrical traditions and cultural stereotypes.
Plays like The Producers work so well because theatre - particularly community theatre - lacks the bullshit that each and every big-budget Hollywood film inevitably exemplifies. Unlike art produced in L.A. (where everything is fake, from hair to boobs to sexual orientation), with community theatre there is a fairly good chance that the guy playing the gay choreographer up on stage really is gay (and he may even be a chorographer). The Producers acknowledges this fact and capitalizes on it in a brilliant and hilarious manner that simply can’t be translated to the film.
Despite my trepidation about attending The Producers, I am happy to note that the Neptune Theatre brought together a brilliant cast, constructed absolutely gorgeous sets and delivered a performance that left old ladies, queer boys and (Cult)ure journalists alike laughing all night long.
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© 2008 Kevin Johns; licensee (Cult)ure Magazine.