NY Times Review: Get-Rich Scheme Goes Comically Awry in ‘The Producers’

 The cast of “The Producers” at the John W. Engeman Theater at Northport. CreditMichael DeCristofaro

A Max Bialystock who looks like Mel Brooks. A Leo Bloom who sings mellifluously and mewls comically. A curvy Ulla with a sweet smile and a mischievous twinkle. Confetti. What’s not to like about the bubbly, bodacious production of “The Producers” now at the John W. Engeman Theater at Northport?

Nothing, really, and there is a lot to enjoy. Stuart Zagnit, who plays Max, is not trying to imitate Mr. Brooks, the creator of the hit 2001 musical (with book-writing help from Thomas Meehan) and of the classic 1968 movie on which it is based. Mr. Brooks, who turns 89 on Sunday, has never played Max, but it’s easy to imagine him in the role of the crazy producer who concocts a scheme to make a fortune by mounting a surefire Broadway flop. Mr. Zagnit resembles Mr. Brooks physically and possesses the bounding energy that the master comic has often displayed. That energy is central to the character of Max, who is able to persuade a timid accountant to take risks, and to romance dozens of “little old ladies” in order to get their cash for his show. Mr. Zagnit’s singing voice is, additionally, much better than Mr. Brooks’s (which was absolutely fine for the humorous songs he delivered in movies like “High Anxiety” and “To Be or Not to Be”).


Joel Newsome as Leo Bloom, left, and Stuart Zagnit as Max Bialystock. CreditMichael DeCristofaro

Igor Goldin, the director, has captured the fizzy showbiz joy that permeates the musical, even when things go desperately wrong for Bialystock and Bloom, the mousy accountant who becomes an eager partner in crime. As Leo Bloom, Joel Newsome, who performed in the Broadway cast and was an understudy for the role of the nervous accountant, has the kind of chemistry with Zagnit that is needed to make this opposites-attract, best-buddies play work. He is especially funny when Leo brings out the remnant of his baby blanket that he uses for comfort, complete with baby whimpers. He makes a charming leader for a fantasy soft-shoe number performed with other accountants to the song “I Wanna Be a Producer.”

As in the other big production numbers, the chorus members perform exceptionally well. The mostly young men and women of the ensemble pass credibly — or at least amusingly — as gray-haired women using walkers in “Along Came Bialy,” one of Mr. Brooks’s many inspired cockamamie concepts. Though Antoinette DiPietropolo’s witty choreography follows the templates of the Tony Award-winning dances by Susan Stroman (who also won a second Tony for directing the Broadway show), she has done an excellent job bringing in her own touches. Kurt Alger’s costumes and wigs brighten the show, as do Daniel Willis’s set, Driscoll Otto’s lighting and all the other design elements. The music director James Olmstead and his band do well by the music.

Mr. Brooks is famous for sparing no group with often-stereotypical humor, and this show is no exception. Sometimes, he satirizes by-the-numbers staging, as when he includes a pair of nuns, a policeman, a soldier and other folks in a street scene in the beginning of the play. That is when Max, a seasoned producer who has fallen on hard times, learns that his latest production, “Funny Boy,” has crashed on its opening night. (The play is a musical version of “Hamlet,” an idea the creators of the current “Something Rotten!” are using.)

The failure of “Funny Boy” leads Bialystock to an epiphany after Bloom casually mentions that a producer could make money by raising extra funds, as long as the show flops and he doesn’t have to pay back his investors. Soon, Bialystock and Bloom start their quest to find the world’s worst play and worst director.

Along the way, they meet Ulla, a Swedish actress who auditions for them with her own song, “When You Got It, Flaunt It.” As Ulla, Gina Milo has got it, including the ability to make Ulla’s over-the-top allure into a spoof of the use of blondes as sex objects, at the same time that she is being a blond sex object. In a different scene, the addition of a short, stocky woman as a laughingstock among a bevy of willowy chorus girls seems meanspirited.

And then there are the gay jokes and the biggest joke of all: The selection of the musical “Springtime for Hitler” as a surefire bomb. These come off without a quibble. While John Plumpis is not quite vivid enough as Franz Liebkind, the pro-Nazi playwright, he is both jovial and deeply sincere. Likewise, Ian Knauer is a tad too reserved as Roger DeBris, the gown-wearing director Max pursues, but he is totally amiable, endearing and droll, especially when he steps in to portray dear old Adolf. It’s a delight to rediscover the many clever turns of this fabulous comedy.

Leave a Comment

Send this to a friend