Review: “The Producers”. Book by Mel Brooks and Thomas Meehan. Music & Lyrics by Mel Brooks. Directed by Steve Tomkins. Choreography by Kristin Holland. Music Direction by Tim Symons and Bruce Monroe. With Richard Gray, Brian Earp, Jessica Skerritt, Nick DeSantis, Chris Ensweiler, and David Anthony Lewis. Now through July 1, 2012 at Village Theatre in Issaquah; July 6-29, 2012 at Everett Performing Arts Center.
Mel Brooks’ “The Producers” was originally a sleeper film (in 1968) became a hit Broadway musical in 2001, earning a record 12 Tony Awards, and went on to earn world wide success, not withstanding the not so successful film of the musical, starring original Broadway leads Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick. “The Producers” has made its locally produced premiere at Issaquah’s Village Theatre with a sumptuous production directed by Steve Tomkins and starring a boatload of exceptionally talented Seattle based actors and…it’s an amazing production with gorgeous costumes, sets, lighting and terrific performances from the entire cast and all glued together with Mr. Tomkins’ strong direction and the choreography of Kristin Holland. It’s an extremely entertaining night of naughty, Mel Brooksian fun with something to shock/horrify just about everyone, rife with Borscht Belt humor and enough stereotypes to populate a cruise ship to Bermuda including some of the funniest and most outrageous homosexual characters to set foot on a Broadway stage. It’s a helluva lot of fun.
Short synopsis for the culturally impaired: Shady but lovable Broadway producer Max Bialystock teams up with a young, nebbishy accountant named Leo Bloom to stage the biggest con in Broadway history by over funding a sure to bomb musical and pocketing the excess cash. They choose the tastelessly written, “Springtime for Hitler” as their vehicle for surefire failure, and have to deal with the demented neo Nazi playwright Franz Liebkind and hire the biggest flaming gay director in town, Roger DeBris to helm the disaster. Along the way, Max and Leo cope with horny old ladies, gay theatrical stereotypes, and the sexy Swedish secretary Ulla to reach their goal. Things don’t go quite as expected; chaos ensues, but everyone is united for a big closing number and Live Happily Ever After.
“The Producers”, as a successful example of a hit musical, works for two reasons: Tons of jokes constantly bombard the audience, (like all Mel Brooks’ productions) and the lavishly staged production numbers that enthrall the eye. The jokes are pure Mel Brooks, and the production numbers are successful due to the original direction and choreography of Susan Stroman. To be honest, most of the songs in “The Producers” really aren’t very good or very memorable, with the exception of the title number from “Springtime for Hitler” which originated with the film in 1968; it’s the only song that actually sticks in your head. Mr. Brooks took a full music/lyrics credit for “The Producers” and won the Tony but songwriting really isn’t his strong suit…the numbers only work due to the non-stop barrage of comedy, the kinetic choreography and the brilliant design work from all departments. The success of “The Producers” was largely due to the brilliantly staged numbers; the huge amount of money spent on design, and the chemistry of the two main characters. “The Producers” is really the fraternal love story of Max and Leo…punctuated with scads of jokes about Nazis, horny old ladies, flaming homos and big boobed Swedes. On paper, “The Producers” is sort of a clunky show; with an adequate budget and a talented cast and production team, it’s ridiculous amounts of fun.
The team really did pull out all the stops for The Village’s production, but they usually do. I’ve already mentioned the excellent stage direction of Steve Tomkins and the divine choreography of Kristin Holland, the best work in musical theater in Seattle I’ve seen all year, but kudos should also be given to the expert musical direction of Tim Symons and Bruce Monroe. Design-wise, “The Producers” is a visual/aural treat with superb lighting by Aaron Copp; sound design by Brent Warwick and curiously uncredited design work for the gorgeous sets and costumes though the program does note the costumes were rented from a professional theatrical costume company. All the components of “The Producers” are expertly handled and executed.
The actors were quite superb as well with Richard Gray, as Max, and Brian Earp, as Leo, heading the cast. They have BIG shoes to fill since Mr. Lane and Mr. Broderick basically own these roles; the Broadway show surprisingly floundered after they left the cast, but Mr. Gray is suitably manic as the scheming Max and Mr. Earp is awkwardly endearing as the neurotic Leo and the two have expert chemistry with one another. Not all the classic moments of the original film and stage production always worked but we have to face facts that “The Producers” is deeply, deeply rooted in Jewish/New York/Borscht Belt humor that doesn’t always transfer well outside its spiritual home. Inflection, timing and a basic grounding in Yiddish humor is sort of necessary for the performers, the production team, and the audience and that’s probably not going to be 100% successful outside a hundred mile radius of NYC, and especially in the white bread and mayo Pacific Northwest. But, the team largely hits its targets, and Mr. Gray and Mr. Earp have enough charm and talent to firmly anchor this show.
They have tough competition though. The supporting characters of “The Producers” are so big and rich and over the top comedic, that they are always threatening to steal the show and run down the street with it. As the sole female with a role of any size, Jessica Skerritt is excellent as the Swedish bombshell Ulla and her hilarious performance and carefully constructed costumes certainly convince the audience she’s a top heavy native of Stockholm. David Anthony Lewis is utterly delightful as the moronic and ineffectual Nazi playwright Franz Liebkind complete with Fascist sympathizing pigeons and threatens to steal the show with his big number, “In Old Bavaria”.
And, then there are “The Gays”, the fruiter than thou team of Broadway professionals hired to stage “Springtime for Hitler” led by director Roger DeBris and his faithfully fey major domo/homo, Carmen Ghia. Their big production number, “Keep It Gay” might horrify the LGBTQ politically correct with its blatant stereotypes (including a leather man, a chorus boy with a monstrously huge basket and a mullet clad bull dyke) but it’s so damn funny that the audience really wouldn’t mind if they repeated it two or three times before continuing with the rest of the show. It’s hugely aided with the terrifically bitchy performance of Chris Ensweiler as Carmen Ghia and even more spectacularly with the “I’m gonna steal this show and run it all the way to a passel of award nominations/wins” work of Nick DeSantis as the vainglorious diva/director/last minute star Roger DeBris. Mr. DeSantis is rightfully one of the most cherished actors in Seattle and certainly one of its top comedic actors, so it’s no surprise that he’s right at home with a role tailor made for his talents, but he’s so ridiculously good you want to buy him a new car in gratitude. The huge “Springtime for Hitler” number is centered on his last minute performance as Hitler and it’s so over the top with kitschy/borschty awesomeness that you never want it to end. The entire show is hugely entertaining, but the entire show could consist of that 20 minute segment and you’d be thrilled to pay $50 just to see it.
In a nutshell: “The Producers” is ridiculous amounts of over the top fun and suitable for the entire family…well, accepting the prudes and young children and those offended by a lot of naughtiness and politically incorrect ribaldry and decadence. For fans of naughty musical theater, it should definitely be checked out.