‘The Producers’– which might very well be the most over-the-top and lavish musical ever mounted at the John W. Engeman Theater– is bowling audiences over big time. Laughter and applause prevailed throughout the performance of the zany comedy that I attended, with the actors receiving a resounding and well-deserved standing ovation.
Based on the book by Mel Brooks and Thomas Meehan, with music and lyrics by Mr. Brooks, the plot follows the wacky antics of Max Bialystock, a floundering former King of Broadway and his meek accountant, Leo Bloom.
As the show opens, Max has missed the mark yet again. Critics have deemed his latest production, ‘Funny Boy,’ the worst show on the Great White Way. Hamlet, perhaps Shakespeare’s most melancholy and conflicted character, would seem a most unlikely candidate for a comedic musical. Oy vey!
When Leo arrives, and is asked by Max to do some ‘creative’ accounting, the nerdish accountant examines the books, and spouts an epiphany that’s a game-changer. It seems that under the right circumstances, a producer stands to make more money with a flop than with a hit. Bells go off in Max’s head: all he has to do is orchestrate the right combination of the worst of all theatrical worlds in terms of a play, director and cast so the show closes immediately and he and Leo can each abscond to Rio with a million dollar profit. But fearful Leo, who has been brow-beaten by his boss and has been coloring within the lines for so long, is having none of it.
For me, the show really heats up when Leo returns to the offices of Whitehall and Marks to toil beneath the shadows of towering file cabinets. In the fantasy sequence, “I Wanna Be A Producer,” glamorous showgirls emerge from those file cabinets and Bloom dances his way into our hearts, singing about his secret desire to make it big on Broadway.
The odd couple of Max and Leo begin their collaboration, poring through piles of bad manuscripts. They find the musical that they are looking for in “Springtime for Hitler.” Written by neo-Nazi Franz Liebkind, who believes that history did Hitler wrong, the script is so crass, and offensive that Max doubts it could even make it to intermission. What Max and Leo have to endure to get Franz to sign a contract is hilarious. You could say that they had me at “Der Guten Tag Hop Clop.” Franz (played by John Plumpis) is terrific.
Next the quest is on for the worst directorial team, whom they find in persnickety Roger Debris (Ian Knauer) and his ‘common-law’ assistant Carmen Ghia (Christopher Sloan), both of whom bring seasoned expertise to their performances and keep the audience in stitches.
The outlandishness reaches its pinnacle with the staging of ‘Springtime for Hitler,’ the riotous and absurd romp through Hitler’s Deutschland. Kudos to Costume and Hair Designer Kurt Alger for intertwining both the glamorous and outrageous (consider a chorus girl wearing a full length sequined gown sporting a huge sausage on her head). Even now thoughts of that costume bring a smile to my face.
The polar opposites, Max (Stuart Zagnit) and Leo (Joel Newsome) are perfectly cast and play off each other beautifully and boy, can they dance and sing. Ulla, the blonde Swedish bombshell who whets both their appetites, is played by Gina Milo, whom many may remember from her roles in Engeman’s “A Christmas Story” and “Plaza Suite.” She humorously shows off her considerable assets when she auditions for Max and Leo in “When You Got It, Flaunt It.” She is absolutely superb.
The musical, which won a record-breaking 12 Tony Awards in 2001, continues to disarm audiences. According to Director Igor Goldin, once again at the helm of one of Engeman’s finest productions, Mel Brooks has a gift for giving “us permission, as a culture, to enjoy, without guilt, irreverent and politically incorrect humor.” The show, dubbed the ‘equal opportunity offender,’ pokes fun at all kinds of stereotypes, challenging “us to laugh at what is taboo.”
“Within the context of the show, in the darkness of theater, we gladly agree. It feels wonderfully mischievous,” said Mr. Goldin, noting that, at the same time, Brooks enlightens us by defusing stereotypes.
Laughter can be very healing and cathartic and “can make us into a better and more understanding race,” Mr. Goldin concludes.
Mr. Goldin also loves how the play is structured.
“You start with our two unlikely protagonists: anti-heroes. You invest time with them, start to find these two losers of life funny and lovable. Then you follow them on a journey as they meet one hysterical character after another, each more hilarious and outlandish than the previous.”
Choreography by the very talented Antoinette DiPietropolo, and music direction by James Olmstead—two of my favorites, and Daniel Willis’ terrific set– complete the perfect theatrical experience.
When asked what he hopes that theatergoers will come away with after seeing ‘The Producers,’ Mr. Goldin had this to say: “Exhaustion from having laughed so much. Hearing an audience laugh is one of my favorite things on earth.”
Does the production of ‘Springtime for Hitler’ sink or swim? You’ll have to see the musical to find out.
‘The Producers’ runs through July 12 but don’t delay. This show might very well sell out. The Engeman Theater is located at 250 Main St., Northport Village. Tickets can be purchased at the theater’s box office, by calling (631) 261-2900 or by visiting www.engemantheater.com.