THEATER REVIEW: Mel Brooks' "The Producers"
It takes enormous matzo balls to stage a show at the Jewish Community Center that features frolicking Nazi storm troopers literally singing the praises of the Third Reich. Granted, it's satire, tongue planted firmly in tuchus, and conceived by Mel Brooks, one of the most chosen of the chosen people. But I still held my breath for a good chunk of the jaw-dropping "Springtime for Hitler" sequence, waiting to see if anyone from the packed audience on opening night would walk out, boo, or spit at the flamboyant Fuhrer prancing about the stage belting, "Heil myself!" Thankfully, everyone was too busy laughing - as they should have been. JCC CenterStage's production of Brooks' "The Producers" is outrageously entertaining, a smart production featuring a solid cast that throws itself fully into the show.
"The Producers" debuted as a 1968 film with Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder that told the story of loser theater producer Max Bialystock and his sniveling young accountant, Leo Bloom, who inadvertently discovers that a producer can make more money off of a flop than a successful show. So the pair sets out to find the worst play ever written, hire the worst director in the world, and offend all of New York before leaving for Rio with their ill-gotten old-lady money. Brooks re-envisioned the story as a Broadway musical in 2001, and it became a commercial and critical smash, winning 12 Tony Awards and packing houses for years. The stars from that show - Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick - reunited in 2005 for a film version of the musical, which was something of a flop. I'm sure there's a joke in there somewhere.
The current production at the JCC is directed by Danny Hoskins, who does a good job translating a big Broadway show to a mid-sized local stage. He's aided by strong work by choreographer Meggins Kelley, vocal director Sarah Mattison (not a bad voice in the show), a great orchestra led by Terrence E. Bacon, and some absolutely tremendous costumes courtesy of Gail Argetsinger (the quartet of Bavarian beauties decked out in giant pretzels, sausages, and beer steins are show stoppers alone). Of course, it helps that the show itself is a riot, with some catchy songs, outrageous characters, and that mind-blowing show-within-a-show in Act II.
Local stage veteran Steven Marsocci plays the lead role of Max Bialystock. Marsocci possesses a strong voice, a commanding stage presence, and some understated comic chops. He is good, but arguably too good: Marsocci occasionally comes off as too likable, and Max is, to be blunt, kind of a scumbag. Marsocci often nails the charming but shameless shyster - Brooks specializes in those kinds of characters - but at other times seems like a nice guy stuck in a bad situation. It's a delicate balance that's not consistently executed, but there's no denying his many talents, especially during his tour de force, "Betrayed."
Sharing the spotlight is Zachary Brown as Leo Bloom. Bloom's tics at first overwhelmed Brown's portrayal, leaving him more of a caricature than a character. But by the time the "I Wanna Be a Producer" number came around he seemed more comfortable in the role, and he went on to deliver a funny, believable, and beautifully sung performance.
The tragedy for the leads in a show like "The Producers" is that the cast of colorful supporting characters can sometimes overshadow them, and that happens to an extent in this production. Kristin Hopwood takes over the stage as soon as Ulla enters late in Act I, and when she's on it she's pretty much impossible to ignore. Hopwood is hilarious, a great singer and dancer, and utterly ravishing. Ulla dance again? Ulla can dance any time she wants, as far I'm concerned.
Ed Popil plays relentlessly gay director Roger De Bris, and later, in the musical within the musical, Adolf Elizabeth Hitler. His performances are big, bold, and polished, and Popil is completely committed to the giddy lunacy going on around him. He is well complemented by Christopher Tyler as Roger's partner-major domo-sidekick, and the two of them make a great comedic pair. I was disappointed whenever they left the stage.
But arguably stealing the whole show is Jeffrey Andrews as Franz Liebkind, the former Nazi turned aspiring playwright behind "Springtime for Hitler." Andrews has a background in comedy, and is a member of both Unleashed! and Broken Couch improv troupes. Here he uses those comedic skills to take an already ridiculous character and make him even more outrageous, nailing every opportunity for a laugh, from his accent to his singing and dancing to his impressive physical comedy. Andrews does not waste a single second on that stage.
Many members of the ensemble also get a chance to shine in smaller roles. Big laughs were generated by Meghan Rose Tonery as both Hold Me, Touch Me and the pitiable would-be chorus girl, Michael Ciaccia as one of the little old ladies, Douglas Dohr as the Nazi soloist, Brian J. Maxwell as the actor with the speech impediment, Michelle Brown as a sassy chorus girl, and Steve Levins as the gruff CPA.
Hoskins and his cast and crew clearly put a great deal of effort into the show's nearly two dozen musical numbers, and all of them are executed beautifully, from the swish-filled "Keep it Gay" to the choreographed walker-wielding grannies in "Along Came Bialy." The show does have some pacing issues in the non-musical parts, especially early in Act I. And while most of the comedy is hits big, one recurring gag with the characters repeatedly interacting with something on the floor of the stage did not translate at all.
Mel Brooks' "The Producers"
Through May 22
Jewish Community Center, 1200 Edgewood Ave.
$16-$24 | 461-2000 x235, jcccenterstage.com