BWW Reviews: The Audience is Prisoners of Laughter at the Fulton's THE PRODUCERS
Very simply, Mel Brooks is the funniest human who has ever lived. If indeed Monty Python's sketch of a joke so funny that no one could read or hear it and live were true, Brooks would have written that joke. He's had competition for funniest human, but there's no longer anything funny about Woody Allen.
The essence of Brooks' humor is absurdity, and the ability to apply it to things that should normally be frightening; it's true Jewish humor, making fun of the tragic. Never did he do it more ably than in his 1968 film, THE PRODUCERS, with Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder. The film copped him an Oscar for best original screenplay, and it's been listed by the American Film Institute as the eleventh funniest film made in America. (To which we can ask, "only the eleventh? So what should be funnier?") But Brooks has an amazing ability to top himself, so he turned his movie about a washed-up Broadway producer into a Broadway musical about a washed-up Broadway producer. The book and lyrics, and much of the music, are by Brooks, who'd written songs and music for his films all along, and who simply had to write the lyrics for the musical - because, nu, who could write anything funnier?
THE PRODUCERS, the musical version, is on stage at the Fulton Theatre in Lancaster, and it's as riotously funny as ever. Perhaps it's just a little more so, thanks to some inspired casting by director Marc Robin. Washed-up producer Max Bialystock is played by Fulton veteran Randall Frizado, who's normally seen in the theatre's children's series, and his nebbish sidekick, accountant and would-be producer Leo Bloom is Andrew Kindig, another Fulton veteran with a long list of children's theatre credits and smaller parts in mainstage musicals; audiences may remember him as the klutzy servant Robinson Ay in MARY POPPINS. There have been a number of fans of these two long-term "second banana" Fulton performers, and Robin wisely chose to highlight their talent by starring them in this production.
First and foremost, Frizado can sing. Those who have seen him only at the Fulton's children's shows know he can sing, but we're talking about SINGING here. Frizado can sing. He can emote while he's singing. He can grab you by the throat and toss you around with his singing, which is just how it's supposed to be when Max sings his great number, "Betrayed," one of Mel Brooks' wildest pieces of writing, which condenses everything that's happened in the entire show, and then some, into five or so minutes of musical monologue. It's a number that's supposed to astound an audience, and Frizado does just that.
Andrew Kindig exists to remind the world that physical comedy is a gift. Few actors anywhere do it better, and it's an art to fall dead onto a floor, rise back up deliberately ungracefully as if it were nothing, and then do another pratfall. This is the life of Leo Bloom, who walks into producer Max Bialystock's office to audit the books and falls headlong into a wild ride of wonder as he turns into a producer himself. And just as Frizado's real singing voice may be a discovery for many, so should be Kindig's soft-shoe talent.
Assisting them on the wild ride through trying to create a Broadway flop is their faithful Swedish blonde assistant and undiscovered star, Ulla. Missy Dowse, Inga in the Fulton's YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN, is again delightful in the usual Brooks gorgeous-girl role, as well as in Ulla's main number, "If You've Got It, Flaunt It."
Jeffrey Coon plays Franz Liebkind, the more than slightly insane pigeon-breeding former Nazi who's written his charming reminiscences of that fun-loving, happy-go-lucky, free-wheeling Fuhrer he knew and loved - the story that Max and Leo dream of turning into their musical, SPRINGTIME FOR HITLER. The show is possibly never funnier than in the rooftop pigeon-feeding scene in which Max and Leo encounter Liebkind, when Max will do anything to get the rights to the story and Leo is preparing to die from encountering a lederhosen-clad dancing Nazi. Liebkind is Brooks' nose-thumb at former Nazis, and Coon plays it to the hilt. Is it over the top? This is Mel Brooks - there's nothing to be except over the top, and Coon gets that.
The same is true for Jamison Stern, playing the equally deranged director Roger Debris. From his entrance in an evening gown styled to mimic the Chrysler Building to his filling in for the lead on stage at the last minute in SPRINGTIME FOR HITLER, everything about Debris is intended to be as far over the top as you can go, and Stern pulls that off neatly.
The minor parts are equally nicely cast, from Jessica Dey as the rich elderly woman Max is bilking to Ben Liebert, Igor in YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN, as Carmen Ghia, Debris' "common law assistant".
The show has some of the best costuming at the Fulton lately, courtesy of John P. White, who's usually seen working costume magic over at Dutch Apple Dinner Theatre. He's responsible for some of the splashiest costuming in the area, and he succeeds in that here, in a show that requires all the splash you can get. Not just anyone can create proper pretzel and beer stein headwear for German dancers, after all, or the right dresses for blonde bombshell Ulla.
There are a few nice sight gags in this production, too, mostly visible to those sitting in the first few rows of the audience. In particular, the theatre posters in Max's office, highlighting hits from Max's glory days, are wickedly funny, and mostly bad Jewish puns. Dreamed up at the Fulton, these production posters are for the late, lamented THE WIZARD OF SCHNOZ, THE PUTZES OF PENZANCE, and JOSEPH AND THE AMAZING TECHNICOLOR SCHMATTE.
Marc Robin's choreography is delightful, although is that an intentional FIDDLER ON THE ROOF tribute in the opening? Its dance vibe falls squarely between FIDDLER and SPAMALOT'S "You Can't Succeed on Broadway," the latter being a bit more closely related to Max's problems. Nonetheless, it's funny, if a bit surprising.
THE PRODUCERS is almost always a great show, and this is a top-notch production, but the single best thing about it, perhaps the true reason to see it, is the pairing of Frizado and Kindig as leading men. There simply is nothing funnier than this team. We can only hope that they'll be cast together again.
At the Fulton through April 4. Visit www.thefulton.org for tickets and information.