Flop ’til you drop: From left, Alexandra Emerson, Laura Danelski, Geno Carr and Bethany Moore in Merry-Go-Round’s The Producers.
No one will enter this superlative
production without knowing what they’re getting into, so let’s have no
pretense of shock. Even after 40 years no one has topped the ingenious
audacity of a musical comedy about Adolf Hitler. What could match it: a
collection of bedtime stories by pedophile-killer John Wayne Gacey?
Even when you know it’s coming, the chutzpah of having leggy chorines
goose-step in jackboots is still breathtaking.
There’s nothing frivolous about The Producers.
In it Brooks confronts some of our deepest fears, not only the
Holocaust, but also failure (Max has been producing only flops) and
betrayal (could Leo run out on Max?). The remedy: Crush dread and fear
Although the biggest Broadway musical of this decade, The Producers’
action swirls in a kind of time warp. In Leo’s first big number, “I
Wanna Be a Producer,” he and his fellow accountants have to use a kind
of hand-cranked adding machine that exists now only in museums. The
crazed author of Springtime for Hitler, Franz
Liebkind, must be a veteran of World War II and still light-footed
enough to hoof his way through “Der Guten Tag Hop Clop.”
More importantly, the characters and the
audience should still be shocked by the red-black-white Nazi armband so
that Brooks can spoof it. The widespread success of The Producers
and our general historical amnesia could mean that future generations
will know Hitler only as a vamping burlesque figure, a kind of male
Judy Garland, instead of the murderer of millions.
Company honcho Ed Sayles directs this
time, proving again that a Christian Brothers Academy graduate can move
in hip Gotham ethnic humor as if it were his own. Confrontations slam
together in a New York minute. Angst runs competition with sass to
sharpen the comedic edge. Yet Sayles still sneaks in some local humor,
as when a rejected tenor at one of Max’s hapless auditions complains
that he used to sing at Glimmerglass Opera.
Most important of Sayles’ many
collaborators is choreographer Lori Leshner, who makes many departures
from Susan Strohman in the 2001 Broadway premiere. The Little Old Lady
chorus frolics with canes rather than walkers, for example. But The Producers is
a dance show where production numbers are integrated into the dialogue
and grow from it. Additionally, several characters, especially the
Carmen Ghia supporting role, are defined as much by the way they move
as what they say or sing.
Costumer Travis Lope and hair-makeup
designer Marty Kopulsky also shape characterization as they drive the
progress of different numbers. This is most apparent in the No. 1
showstopper, “Springtime for Hitler,” which strangely comes smack in
the middle of the second act instead of at the end. Along with the
aforementioned chorines in jackboots are mannequins with exaggerated
symbols of German culture, including a pretzel, a jumbo-size sausage
and a sequined bra with rotating black swastikas.
Vital as he may be as a director, Sayles explained in the July 9 Syracuse New Times
cover story that his greatest personal contribution to each show is as
a casting director, a task requiring three months’ labor each year.
He’s found the right people not only for all the leads but also more
than 20 supporting roles, not all of which can be named.
Portly newcomer Ray Arrucci creates his
own bumptious Max Bialystock, who more resembles the rubber-faced Zero
Mostel from the 1968 movie than the brassier Nathan Lane from Broadway.
His Max sweeps from imperious vanity to abject pathos, when he fears
he’s been shut out at the end.
As Leo Bloom, Geno Carr has appeared in 11 MGR shows, most recently as Smee in last summer’s Peter Pan.
Playing mousy and repressed usually makes it hard for an actor to
shine, but Carr’s “I Wanna Be a Producer” easily outclasses what
Matthew Broderick put into the poorly received 2005 film version of the
Women’s roles are not usually rewarding
in Mel Brooks vehicles, but tall-tall Bethany Moore’s Ulla comes across
as a musical-comedy Valkyrie, smarter and more powerful than her
faux-insipid lines would imply. In one of Brooks’ best lines, Max and
Leo witness Ulla performing a number, then remark, “We’re sitting down,
but we’re giving you a standing ovation.”
Christopher Carl’s hyper-swishy Roger De
Bris, “the worst director in New York,” wins this season’s MGR
versatility prize. As the program notes do not explain, Carl was also
the fanatically obsessive Inspector Javert in MGR’s recent mounting of Les Miserables.
When Brooks adapted the 1968 film for the stage show, he expended
Roger’s role into nearly a co-lead, as well as making it a demanding
singing role. Carr’s voice soars and dominates “Springtime for Hitler,”
for example. And even with heavy eye makeup and earrings, Carr gets
much mileage by playing so startlingly against type.
A Spanish accent somewhere between
Antonio Banderas and Charo gives Juan Torres-Falcon a comic spin as
Carmen Ghia, director Roger’s sidekick, but he gains more from his
lithe dancer steps that will win him no prizes on Gay Pride Day. Mark
Ludden’s nutcase playwright Franz Liebkind projects enough voice to let
us hear feeling in his solo “In Old Bavaria,” a talent working against
caricature. Outstanding faces from the ensemble include Christopher
Shin, Keith Varney and Marissa Lupp, all mining gold from fleeting
Michael Hottois’ serviceable set,
well-lighted by Robert Frame, is designed for rapid scene changes.
Corinne Aquilina’s musical direction enriches Brooks’ score, making him
sound like a real composer instead of a guy who dictates melodies to
scribes who know how to read music.
Comparisons are always odious, of course, but The Producers could be a bigger hit for MGR than the four-week run of Les Miserables. Tickets are probably even harder to get.