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Review: “The Producers,” high-octane classic of musical comedy, delivers good old-fashioned laughs

Stacey Todd Holt (left) and Michael McCormick in "The Producers."
Stacey Todd Holt (left) and Michael McCormick in "The Producers."

At Friday night’s opening-curtain speech, Chris Manos, producer of Theater of the Stars, summed up his new version of “The Producers” perfectly well. “This is a musical comedy, an old school musical comedy,” he told the crowd. Those looking for something new and edgy might not cotton to it, but those willing to take this kind of corny, kind of dated show at face value will have a blast. Based on the famous 1968 Mel Brooks movie of the same name, it will run through January 31 at the Fox Theatre, courtesy of Theater of the Stars, which is celebrating its 60th season.

It’s a theatrical satire, opening as producer Max Bialystock (Broadway veteran Michael McCormick) flops with his show “Funny Boy,” which closes the same night it opens. When nebbish accountant Leo Bloom (Stacey Todd Holt) later innocently mentions to Max that it’s easier to make money off of a disaster than a hit — poof! Max comes up with a scheme: make the worst flop of all time and make a fortune swindling investors. Leo has always wanted to be a producer, and he’s game. As part of the plan, the two find an offensive play — “Springtime for Hitler,” written by Franz Liebkind (Tom Robbins) — then hire the worst director they can find, flamboyantly gay Roger De Bris (David DeVries), to stage the show and watch it crash and burn. Along the way, they meet Ulla Inga tor Hansen Benson Yansen Tallen Hallen Svaden Swanson Bloom (Lara Seibert), a Swedish blonde whom they decide to hire. Of course, her name gets laughs throughout the night.

What seems like a disaster on paper is mistaken as a farce and hailed by the critics, much to the dismay of Max and Leo.

Casting is crucial in a production such as this, and Manos and director Bill Burns have taken their time here. From top to bottom, this is a solid ensemble. McCormick has the plum role and runs with it; his manic energy makes Max an irresistible comic center. He and Holt are a nice team vocally and otherwise, even if Holt overdoes the shtick at times. Standouts among the supporting players include Seibert, who doesn’t overplay Inga, and Patrick Boyd as Carmen, Roger’s common-law partner. The actor has a terrific deadpan delivery (“Can I take your coat, hat and swastikas?” he asks when Max and Leo come for a visit) and a fluttering hand that deserves its own sitcom.

Local actor DeVries plays Roger. It’s a nifty performance, even if he doesn’t have the presence or confidence of Tony Award winner Gary Beach, who originated the role on Broadway and was scheduled to revisit it here but had to pull out just before opening night because of health issues.

Although the musical numbers are sung and choreographed nimbly for the most part, it’s the garish ones in “The Producers” that tend to be the most memorable. “Keep It Gay” is Roger’s take on what he envisions as the keys to a successful musical. It’s complete with a Village People-like array of men, an overstuffed body part and plenty of goofiness. And “Springtime for Hitler,” where Roger gets to come onstage when the original actor (literally) breaks a leg on opening night, is blatantly politically incorrect, with showgirls, pretzel-and-weiner headdresses and Nazi-friendly lyrics.

“The Producers” was a smash on Broadway in 2001, with Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick as Max and Leo. It received a record 12 Tony Awards, more than any other musical in history. Some say it deserved every bit of its acclaim, while others feel it’s overrated.

It can feel labored and silly, with jokes that lost their luster several decades ago. But when done right, as it is here, it’s a droll, inventive comedy. This version is certainly a lot more polished than the clunky touring one of eight years ago. It takes a sourpuss not to enjoy a musical where little old ladies and their walkers break into a tap number onstage.

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