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Broadway and Beyond: Musicals (Other than 'The Producers')

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A totally original musical spectacular: 'Blast'

The theater world is still a little shell-shocked from that Broadway skyrocket known as "The Producers." The Mel Brooks musical based on his 1968 movie opened three weeks ago to the sort of rapturous reviews (and frenzy for tickets) that even Rodgers & Hammerstein would have envied. I donít want to be the one to rain on this party (heck, thatís my quote — "A gift from the showbiz Gods!" — outside the St. James theater), but maybe a few cautionary words are in order, to try to bring everyone down to earth.

"The Producers" is a terrifically entertaining show, one of the best Broadway musicals in years, but I think it falls short of joining the pantheon, for a few reasons. Great musicals have great scores, and the songs that Mel Brooks has concocted are bright and bouncy, but hardly memorable; the song youíre humming on the way out of the theater will most likely be the one you were humming on the way in — "Springtime for Hitler." Great musicals have love stories that are organic to the plot, not tacked on the way the romance between Leo Bloom (Matthew Broderick) and his buxom Swedish secretary (Cady Huffman) has obviously been here, just because the movie had none. Finally, as sharp as director/choreographer Susan Stroman's work in staging the show has been, her source material were pretty surefire. Let's face it: Is there a choreographer on Broadway who could have botched "Springtime for Hitler"?

Indeed, for all the praise Stroman has received for the mirror effect that mimics the overhead shot of the swastika dancers in the movie, I havenít heard a peep about the same device that director Mark Bramble uses to create an even niftier Busby Berkeley effect in "42nd Street." This show, a revival of Gower Championís 1980 reworking of the 1933 movie, is hardly one that I was clamoring to see back on Broadway. Yet it packs in so much precision tap-dancing, lavishly appointed production numbers, talented performers and delightful Harry Warren-Al Dubin songs (including three that weren't in the 1980 show) that you'd have to be a real grump to complain. The wonderful Christine Ebersole, as the bitchy star who breaks an ankle, finally gets a Broadway role to show off her lovely voice and comedic gifts; Michael Cumpsty, though a bit too tailored as the harried director, is a charismatic anchor for the show; and Kate Levering, as the chorus girl who becomes a star, dances like a demon. The book is creakier than ever, with all that campy Ď30s lingo ("Am-scray, toots!"). But this show is pure candy. It'll probably rot your teeth, but who can resist?

If "42nd Street" is getting overshadowed by "The Producers," "Blast" has been totally annihilated. The critics treated this entertaining show, which originated in Indiana and has toured successfully around the country, like a gawky tourist who has wandered into a swank supper club by mistake. One of those new-style music spectacles (think "Stomp!"), "Blast" features a horde of fresh faced kids in their 20s performing an array of choreographed band numbers. Itís a mix of marching-band music, baton twirling, ballet, Ed Sullivan novelty act, Blue Man Group-style performance art and a few other things that escape me at the moment. The individual elements are familiar, but the amalgam is something totally original. The drum soloists are dazzling; the unicycling trombone player a hoot; and I donít know about you, but when I see a dozen performers toss batons 30 feet into the air and catch them at precisely the same instant a foot from the ground, Iím pretty darn impressed. "Blast" probably belongs more in a Las Vegas showroom than a Broadway theater. But if you can set aside your civic concern for the proper uses of New York City real estate (as the critics havenít), you should have a good time.

I wish I could say the same for the other new Broadway musical of the spring, "Tom Sawyer." But this kid-friendly adaptation of the Mark Twain story, if not quite the "Saturday Night Live" parody its ubiquitous ads promised ("Hey, Tom Sawyer!"), is a second-rate refugee from summer stock. Don Schlitz has written music with a country twang but cornball lyrics ("Heís full of that old scratch /Impossible to catch"), and the odd, earth-toned sets make this Mississippi River town look like something the Pharoahs built. The show does rev up some lively melodrama in the second act, with an exciting cave climax that kids might enjoy. But this show has little to attract paying adults — unless they're looking for a rest after standing in line for tickets to "The Producers."

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