BWW Reviews: Stroman Brilliantly Re-Stages THE PRODUCERS for the Hollywood Bowl
It's official. In its choice to put on THE PRODUCERS—the hilarious 12-time Tony Award-winning musical from comic genius Mel Brooks—the 18,000-seat Hollywood Bowl has once again proven that its summer all-star blockbuster musical is one of the most exciting, highly-anticipated theater offerings of the year. Ridiculously silly in all the right ways and featuring a comically gifted, star-studded principal cast that delivers the goods with infectious gusto, this large-scale revival on this outdoor arena elicited such a huge chorus of laughter all evening that you wonder if the households in the surrounding neighborhood might have wondered what the fuss was all about.
The fuss can certainly be blamed on Susan Stroman, who won a pair of Tonys for her work on the original 2001 Broadway production. Tasked to re-stage the show on the massive stage of the Hollywood Bowl, Stroman executes the mounting beautifully, making smart cuts, easily changeable sets, and effective blocking that results in a genuinely fun production that's about as close to a real Broadway musical show than previous summer shows have attempted (most, frankly, resemble just an elaborate concert staging).
Naturally, it helps that the elements that have been assembled for this one-weekend-only presentation—from costumes to music—all work (well, mostly). The source material is, of course, already a beloved entity. Adapted from his own 1968 movie of the same name, Mel Brooks (along with co-book writer Thomas Meehan) have fashioned an entertaining, mad-cap musical comedy about a greedy Broadway producer, Max Bialystock (the brilliant Richard Kind), who along with mousy new co-conspirator Leo Bloom (Modern Family's Jesse Tyler Ferguson) devise a plan to make a lot of money—for themselves—by putting on a guaranteed flop on Broadway. To help ensure their show is about as revolting as possible, the pair procures the script for Springtime for Hitler from novice Nazi playwright Franz Liebkind (surprise scene-stealer Dane Cook), and asks über-gay director Roger De Bris (Tony winner Gary Beach), with help from his common-law assistant Carmen Ghia (Roger Bart) to helm the surefire disaster.
Right from the start to the very amusing end, the show really crackles with a palpable joy; everything from scene changes and set transitions to the elaborate dance numbers and comic exchanges have the look and feel of a show that's been touring arenas for years. By the time Mel Brooks himself appears on stage during the final bows, we too are just as enamored when he says "look what these guys can do in just three days!" Indeed.
Amusing as THE PRODUCERS is, having this particular cast bring it to life is the icing on a very, very delicious cake. As producers Bialystock and Bloom, both Kind and Ferguson are cast in their parts perfectly. Both of these actors seem to possess traces of their respective characters' traits already, so when enhanced for an audience, it makes for an even more enjoyable show. Personally, it's also great to see (and hear!) Ferguson return to his stage roots (yes, TV people, Broadway had him first!), and, more importantly, excel in a role that showcases his fainthearted-but-manic behavior so well. I'm really surprised that he actually hasn't played Leo Bloom until now. Kind, as expected, is nothing short of superb. His comic timing and overall performance is mesmerizing. And, damn, this guy can move!
Reprising the roles they created on Broadway, Beach and Bart make a welcome return to the roles they have done incredibly time and again—both on stage and even in the so-so movie version. The pair are such a flashy delight to watch; and Beach, once again, demonstrates live why he won the Tony Award for this role. His work on the huge production number "Springtime for Hitler" is not only all kinds of crazy-good, it's downright amazing. Seriously.
As for the relative newbies in the cast, the results are mixed, but nothing to dispel audiences from enjoying the show. As Ulla, the sexy Swedish import that sashays into the Bialystock and Bloom office for an audition, only to be hired as their receptionist, Ugly Betty's Rebecca Romijn—while not quite a strong enough singer that has been traditionally required for the role—does a fine, valiant job mostly. Fortunately, she is so genuinely effervescent—and so very funny, actually—that one forgets the minor flaw. Joyfully penetrating and at the ready, she's a real smile-inducer, for sure.
But the real eye-opener of the night is Cook, the brash, outspoken comedian—who just days ago caused some controversy after making some off-color remarks about the unfortunate tragic events in Aurora, Colorado. Here, though, Cook morphs into the role of Franz effortlessly, playing up to his strengths and channeling the crazy antics that have been a signature trait of his stand-up comedy routines. He is so, so good in the role, that I wondered to myself why this guy hasn't been snapped up to do other musicals. And, dude... he can really sing! And he can really dance! Much like Nicole Scherzinger surprised many when she did RENT at the Hollywood Bowl a few years ago, many will be talking about Cook in this show for weeks to come. His playful solos in the show are definitely memorable highlights. The rest of the ensemble is also in fine form, particularly local favorite Larry Raben who takes on multiple supporting roles throughout this consistently funny production.
And like all blockbuster musicals produced at the Bowl, this version of THE PRODUCERS endures some massive cuts to ensure its alloted running time and shortened rehearsal period. Much of the dialogue has been adequately excised, yet still retains the hilarious intentions set by Brooks and Meehan. The second act takes the brunt of the cuts, losing some of the numbers I've always felt to be only-okay time stretchers, anyway. Luckily, "Springtime for Hitler"—really, the show's signature piece—remains brilliantly intact. My only miniscule gripe is how quickly the show moves straight to Max's court trial (his jailhouse rant "Betrayed" which normally precedes the trial is one of the casualties of the cuts). Overall, the show moves briskly, resulting in mining the most laughs in the shortest amount of time. (They did, however, manage to make a crack about traffic—a joke improvised to cover-up a prolonged lull that allowed for the production to fix some of Kind's microphone tech issues).
Understandably, the opening night performance at the Hollywood Bowl was a little less full than the past two years' offerings (after all, the show doesn't have any Disney channel stars or a Jonas brother in the cast). This means that if you're in Southern California, you can likely still score tickets to this thoroughly impressive production. Do yourself a favor and catch this show this weekend, because it's not likely this great cast will ever come together to do this show ever again.
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Photos from the Opening Night Performance of THE PRODUCERS at the Hollywood Bowl by Mathew Imaging ©2012. From top: Max (Richard Kind) & Leo (Jesse Tyler Ferguson), Franz (Dane Cook) dances for joy, and Roger (Gary Beach) with Ulla (Rebecca Romijn) sing an ode to Hitler.
Performances of THE PRODUCERS, featuring original direction and choreography by Susan Stroman continue at the Hollywood Bowl on Saturday, July 28 (at 8:00 pm) and Sunday, July 29 (at 7:30 pm).
Tickets are still available, and may be purchased online at HollywoodBowl.com, by phone at 323-850-2000, in person at the Hollywood Bowl box office, or by calling Ticketmaster at 800.745.3000, and at all Ticketmaster outlets.