By Ruth Ross
Someone, maybe even Mel Brooks himself, said that the best way to get revenge on Hitler is to make fun of him. Well, that’s certainly what Brooks does in his comic paean to the Great Dictator, The Producers, now given a polished, efficient production at the Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn, where it runs through October 23.
Taken from a 1968 dark comedy of the same name (written and directed by Mel Brooks) starring Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder, this musical is the final entry of a comedic arc that began in 1962 when Brooks coined the title Springtime for Hitler as a joke during a press conference. The more upbeat musical version, which debuted in 2001 to very mixed reviews was a star vehicle for Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick.
Mel Brooks has never been lauded for his taste or restraint, and the musical version of The Producers is awash in vulgarity and excess, despite the professional production now onstage. Failed Broadway producer Max Bialystock and nerdy accountant Leo Bloom cook up a plan to intentionally stage a flop by raising $2 million from the bevy of little old ladies Max has relied upon for years, and taking the money they won’t have to pay back, flee to Rio de Janiero where they can live like royalty for the rest of their lives. After reading many plays, they settle a particularly awfulone, Springtime for Hitler, written by Hitler admirer Franz Liebkind. They hire the worst director in the world, Roger De Bris, and mount a production, only to be dismayed that it’s a hit! Bialystock is caught, Bloom and Ulla ,the blonde bombshell secretary/actress they’ve hired, high-tail it to Rio but return to get Max acquitted on the basis of a maudlin speech delivered by Bloom in defense of his good friend. The two go on to become successful Broadway producers, with many hits, most of them bearing titles similar to real successful plays, i.e. Kats.
Under Don Stephenson’s adept direction, The Producers has polish but no soul. Things move along efficiently, but there is little character delineation, everyone sings very loud and show-stopping numbers far outnumber anything more quiet by a ratio of about 15 to 3. It’s all very fast and frenetic, and the character of Max is more of a con man/huckster than a lovable, albeit sly, schnook.
For the most part, however, the performances are stellar. Michael Kostroff’s portrayal of Max (Above, with Madeline Doherty as one of his backers) is masterful. It should be; he’s played it seven times before. Given to climbing on bales of newspapers and desk, he’s very agile, and the gleam in his eye lights up the large auditorium. He makes Max’s enthusiasm and resolve infectious, but he lacks any lovability that should be the heart of the show. He does, however, convey a bit of the man’s vulnerability when he realizes that Leo and Ulla have betrayed him and skipped town with the dough. You know: a crook with a heart of gold.
As the quivering accountant Leo Boom, David Josefsberg (Above with Kostroff) is equally as terrific. He has some hilarious shtick with a security blanket he whips out whenever he’s upset, and his klutzy dancing is appropriate to the character. His bumbling is the perfect foil for Max’s oiliness. His love for the unattainable blonde Ulla is conveyed very well in one of the ballads, “Prisoner of Love,” and his defense of Max during the trial (“Til Him”) feels heartfelt.
In the role of Ulla, Ashley Spencer (left) is simply smashing. With her thick Swedish accent, she brings down the house whenever she opens her mouth, and her rendition of “When You’ve Got It, Flaunt It” stops the show. She’s not only easy on the eyes but she really knows how to put a song across. She’s a real star to watch.
Excellent support is provided by Kevin Pariseau (Roger De Bris), Mark Price (his very effeminate assistant Carmen Ghia) and John Treacy Egan (Franz Liebkind; below). The ensemble does double and triple duty as urban dwellers, auditioners and the group of little old ladies who perform a production number “Along Came Bialy” with walkers!
As we’ve come to expect, the sets designed by Robin Walker, the lighting design by John Lasiter and the sound by Randy Hansen add to the production’s polished professionalism. James Moore is to be commended for his musical direction, as is the choreography re-created by Bill Burns.
The Producers won 12 Tony Awards in 2001, 3 Olivier Awards and 10 Drama Desk awards, so what’s the beef? Sure, the show is vulgar, unabashedly politically incorrect, full of ethnic stereotypes and ridiculous accent, but hey, it’s entertaining, isn’t it, you may ask. Well, The Producers is a Broadway musical in the mold of many previous musical, but it goes for broad, bawdy humor with nothing thoughtful behind it (as in South Pacific or Oklahoma). It’s loud, brash, in-your-face, and in the current nasty, judgmental political climate, it was cringe inducing. And that, for me, blunts the entertainment factor somewhat and only serves to highlight just how hurtful such talk can be. Leave the kids at home.
The Producers will be performed at the Paper Mill Playhouse, 22 Brookside Drive, Millburn, through October 23. For information and tickets, call the box office at 973.376.4343 or visit www.papermill.org online.