Tuesday, July 07, 2009
review of *The Producers*
Accountants in green eyeshades lean over ledgers, chanting wearily that they're "unhappy, unhappy ... very very very unhappy." Soon they're joined by one of their own, a man with a briefcase named Leopold Bloom, bullied by his boss and resigned to a dull bookkeeping life. His dream is to be a Broadway producer — the glitz! the showgirls! — but he lacks nerve.
In one of the highlights of the Coeur d’Alene Summer Theater production of The Producers, Matt Wade makes Leo the kind of guy who stumbles into a room, then yelps at the sight of the door he just closed behind himself. But soon, security blanket and all, Leo gets himself ensnared in enough fraud to make himself fabulously rich: He gets to act bossy, he gets to produce a play, he gets the girl.
And that’s why The Producers resonates with audiences. Despite the Borscht Belt one-liners, the hackneyed situations, the stereotypes, Mel Brooks’ gay fantasia on anti-Nazi themes is still about a couple of guys who just want to realize their dreams. (Well, more than a couple of guys, some of whom have their Fuhrer-worshipping quirks.)
The fun is in the outrageousness: Who wouldn’t like to dupe some oddballs, make a killing and toddle off to Rio?
In the CdA version (through July 18), director and choreographer Tralen Doler knows how to “Keep It Gay” and “Flaunt It” while convincing everyone concerned that “We Can Do It.” For example, Doler supervises a busy "King of Broadway" number, lead producer Max Bialystock's lament for the clout he once had. By the end, a swirling crowd of winos, nuns and hookers are all bowing down to a little guy preening on a pretzel cart. Doler makes clever use of side-stage projections, keeps the crowd scenes bustling, and even designs dance duets that go up, across and over a casting couch — keeping the energy flowing with dances and jokes that cover scene changes. (Directors enamored of momentum-killing blackouts, take note.)
Jennifer Davis's odd Swedish ululations as Ulla only worsened the lack of clarity in the Shuler sound system — a lot of her one-liners were garbled. Davis fills Ulla’s dance requirements, though: She’s one flexible bombshell.
As Franz Liebkind, the Nazi nutcase who has written a musical tribute to Adolf Elizabeth Hitler — a sure-fire flop on Broadway — Patrick Treadway sports some hot-pants lederhosen, his knobby knees protruding above Nazi knee socks. Treadway could afford to go even more over the top while “In Old Bavaria,” but his rapid-fire hand-claps in “Der Guten Tag Hop-Clop” were hilarious.
Jerry Christakos steals scenes as the self-aggrandizing and very swish director chosen by Max and Leo to shepherd their flop. Whether he’s in silver-lamé drag or military khakis, watch Christakos’ mannerisms: fluttering hands of indecision, facial tics gauging how much the audience adores him, arms draped in L-shapes of self-hugging. He tap-dances with Stalin, goose-steps in the chorus line, and generally follows Charlie Chaplin’s technique (in The Great Dictator) of making fascists look foolish.
As the director’s gofer, Steven Dahlke executes an effete hip-swiveling sashay that’s exaggerated and therefore funny. (Subtlety’s not valued in this show. What’s valued is finding new ways to make caricatures even more outlandish.)
Max Mendez’s 17-piece orchestra was especially impressive in show-off passages like the first-act finale and, of course, that Las Vegas-style tribute to the world’s greatest entertainer, “Springtime for Hitler.”
That number provides one way to hack Hitler down to size. But then The Producers makes fun of everybody, not excluding Jews and little old ladies. And the satire is scattershot for a reason: In Mel Brooks Land, you might as well chase your dreams, because everybody else is too crazy to chase after theirs.
[ photo by Young Kwak for The Inlander: Eric Hadley as Max Bialystock, Jennifer Davis as Ulla, and Matt Wade as Leo Bloom in Tralen Doler's production of Mel Brooks' The Producers at Coeur d'Alene Summer Theater, July 2009 ]
** Deleted passages (like the extras on a DVD, only less entertaining):
Wade and Davis waltz right up and over the casting couch, leading to suggestions of nookie punctuated by a delightful pop-up-head routine.
Wade displays here the best physical comedy that he has offered in two seasons at CdA: tongue out, chin lowered, security blanket nestled up against his cheek, his arm, his forehead. He doesn’t speak, he neighs — and when he gets over-excited, he’s a regular hoppy-floppy Energizer Bunny.
He invents unexpected and cutesy ways of cuddling up wif his little blankie (so he’s got “childlike” covered) and he’s got out-of-control happy feet when Ulla says says she’ll shack up with him (so he’s got “horny” covered too). When the two of them return from Rio, Wade parties in an ice cream suit, cavorting with Mardi Gras gyrations that are matched only by Davis’s hyper-speed shoulder-and-bosom shimmies.
A couple of numbers early in Act Two seem old-fashioned and tame in the context of Brooks’ frenzy. “That Face,” the boys’ tribute to Ulla’s hotsy-totsy-ness, seems like a simple love song, and the “’Break a leg,’ not ‘Good luck’” bit feels like a segment Brooks had to add in between the auditions and the big-number extravaganza of “Springtime for Hitler.”
As Max, Eric Hadley projects bulldog humor. Sometimes the huffing and puffing — or the Nathan Lane mannerisms — show through, but Hadley’s a likeable weasel. His Bialystock whines a lot, but from motives of desperation, not swindling. A jaw-dropping highlight of this show arrives late in Act Two, when Hadley, isolated in a jail cell, performs the rapid-fire plot summarizing in “Betrayed” so well and so precisely that it’s funny/awesome at all once.
The old-ladies-with-walkers drill team was less extensive and precise than in other productions, but compensation arrived in the first-act finale, which had everyone expressing their desires with sonic flair.
This time around, I admired Brooks’ ingenuity with the ol’ rule about how a show’s second song needs to be an “I Want” song. “King of Broadway” establishes that Max was up, now down, and wants to be back up again in the pecking order of Broadway producers. But then we get the light bulb/temptation scene (Leo makes a random observation, Max gets his Big Idea, then recruits a reluctant Leo into his scheme) — followed by Leo’s second thoughts, necessitating a second “I Want” song, with Leo realizing that he’s willing to risk living in jail because he’s already living in the jail of the accounting firm.