When great actors are given great material, great things happen. Such is the case with The Producers: A Mel Brooks Comedy from Music Theater Works.
In his Director’s Note in the program, L. Walter Stearns confesses that the show “has a little something to offend everyone.” But in the next sentence, he extols the comic talents of the legendary writer as a genius. And, both are true – which, of course, is the brilliance of Mel Brooks.
Brooks originally conceived The Producers as a novel entitled Springtime for Hitler, and then as a play. Finally, he settled on writing a film treatment, which landed him a deal with producer Sidney Glazier.
The 1967 movie was described as being about “two schnooks on Broadway who set out to produce a flop and swindle the backers.” It starred Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder, and was made on a budget of just under $1 million.
Once the film was complete, the studio felt Brook’s humor was in bad taste and was considering shelving it. However, Peter Sellers became a champion of the film – campaigning for it with an ad in Variety. The film ended up winning Brooks an Academy Award for Best Story and Screenplay.
Decades later after having conquered Hollywood with such slightly off-color comedic masterpieces as Blazing Saddles, History of the World Part I, Spaceballs, and Robin Hood: Men in Tights, Brooks decided to revisit The Producers and turn it into a Broadway musical.
Writing the music and lyrics, and co-writing the script with Thomas Meehan, Brooks unleashed The Producers as a musical on Broadway in 2001. Filled with Brooks’ unapologetic humor that will assuredly both offend and delight everyone at some point, and starring stage and screen heavyweights Nathan Lane and Mathew Broderick, it became THE show to see on Broadway.
Lane and Broderick were both nominated for the Best Actor in a Musical Tony Award, with Lane winning the statue. Then the Broadway musical based on a Hollywood movie about a Broadway musical, was made into yet another Hollywood movie – sharing the now revised big, bold vision with the world.
Now all that bigger-than-life comedy is on full display in the capable hands of director Stearns, music director Eugene Dizon, and choreographer Darryl K. Clark at North Shore Center for the Performing Arts in Skokie, IL. And what a grand and thrilling spectacle it is!
The story centers on Max Bialystock, a once-successful Broadway producer who is now known for his repeated flops that he bankrolls by bedding old widows. Inspired by an innocent comment by a visiting accountant, Bialystock conceives the notion that if he raises $2 million more than required to produce a show and then ensures the production flops, he could pocket those extra millions and escape to Rio.
That young accountant, Leo Bloom, becomes his reluctant partner in crime – cooking the books so that he too can list Broadway Producer to his resume of credentials. His dream of being a Broadway producer was in fact inspired by seeing a Max Bialystock production as a child, back when Max still had a reputation.
To ensure that their production is a flop, the duo seek out the worst script they can find. What could be worse than Springtime for Hitler: A Gay Romp with Adolf and Eva?
Just to make sure the show tanks and closes in record time, Bialystock and Bloom hire the worst director in New York, flamboyant transvestite Roger De Bris.
The role of Bialystock is one of the true great challenges for actors. It’s a chance for talents often seen in supporting character roles to take center stage and carry a show. Thomas M. Shea is everything the role requires – a great comic actor with a super expressive face and an impressive vocal delivery.
The Producers is Music Theater Works’ 150th production. It seems appropriate that they bring in a talent of Shea’s caliber to highlight the event. Making it all the more impressive, Shea was in the company’s first production of HMS Pinafore in 1981. Choreographer Clark was also in that production.
RISING TO THE TOP
David Geinosky as Leo Blood sneaks up on you. His character is meek, so his first appearances are subdued. Initially, he comfortably plays second fiddle to Bialystock.
As the play goes on, Geinosky gradually brings the character to life, displaying phenomenal singing and dancing skills. His nimble feet give Clark’s choreography the beautiful interpretation it deserves and Brooks’ music both beauty and humor. It is a show-stopping performance.
Kelsey MacDonald plays the super-sexy Ulla, a statuesque Swedish actress whom the producers make their secretary so they can oogle at her. MacDonald lives up to the lineage of fine starlets who have come before her. I loved her character, her singing, and her lovely dancing.
Brooks has a talent for writing great supporting characters that come in and just dominate for a scene or two. Such is the case with the role of Franz Liebkind, the ex-Nazi soldier who wrote Springtime for Hitler and believes his hero’s middle name was actually Elizabeth in respect to the long line of “English queens” he is descended from.
Sam Nachison gives Liebkind a booming voice and a whopper of a personality. You never know if he’s going to be gleefully or manically homicidal. Nachison captures every comedic opportunity.
Also great characters that performers dream to play are those of woefully bad director Roger de Bris and his “Common Law Assistant” Carmen Ghia. Steve McDonagh is delightful as de Bris, bringing the audience to hysterics when he breaks the 4th wall in the second act with a brilliant lounge act. Eustace J. Williams is just plain fun as Ghia, and also shows off some great dance skills.
The show is filled with big song and dance numbers that require an extremely talented and versatile ensemble, playing many characters each. The number of costumes that Rachel M. Sypneiwski had to come up with is staggering – so kudos to her.
There is not a weak member in the cast. The engaging ensemble includes the talents of Jack Bowes, Karylin Veres, David Blakeman, Justin Payton Nelson, Andrew John Baker, Anna Brown, Alexander Christie, Renée Dwyer, Lacey Jack, Nick Johnson, Katie Kotila, Rachel Livingston, Kelly Lohrenz, Ethan Lupp, Caitlyn Porayko, Palash Ranjit, Erol Ibrahimovic, Melodey Rowland, and Alex Villasenor. Understudies and swings also include Timothy Wolf, Alex Iacobucci, and Jenny Couch.
Lighting design by Andrew Meyers makes good use of the space, highlighting the best attributes of Jonathan Berg-Einhorn’s set. Sound design is by Matthew R. Chase, with hair, wigs, and makeup by Keith Ryan; props by Noah Elman; fight choreography by Nick Sandys, intimacy choreography by Amber Wuttke. Anita Silvert serves as dramaturg and August Rain Stamper provides dialect coaching.
The orchestra is conducted by Eugene Dizon and features Linda Madonia (piano); Alison Tatum, Hillary Bayley (violin); Lewis Rawlinson (cello) Joseph Krysniak (bass); Cara Strauss, David Orlicz, Sophie Creutz, and Matthew Beck (reeds); Gregory Stauss and Amy Nelson (trumpet); Stephanie Lebens and Joshua Torrey (trombone); Sarah Younker (French horn); Lindsay Williams (drums); and Tina Laughlin (percussion).
If you have the ability to laugh at the absurd, even if it makes you cringe sometimes, you’re probably a Mel Brooks fan. And, anyone who likes the flavor of Brooks’ comedy style, as I do, will love The Producers at Music Theater Works.
The Producers plays a limited engagement through August 20th, the performance schedule is Wednesdays at 1 p.m., Fridays at 8 p.m., Saturdays at 8 p.m., Sundays at 2 p.m. with a Saturday matinee, Aug. 19 at 2 p.m. For tickets visit www.MusicTheaterWorks.com or call the box office at (847) 673-6300.
North Shore Center for the Performing Arts is located at 9501 Skokie Blvd., in Skokie.
Photo credit: Brett Beiner Photography
Peace. Love. Trust.
Rikki Lee Travolta
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