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BWW Review: Theatre Memphis Goose Steps to Glory with THE PRODUCERS

Is there anyone else quite like Mel Brooks? Has anyone ever reached such comic heights by plumbing so gleefully the depths of vulgarity and bad taste? From his beginnings in the 1950's writing for Sid Caesar's legendary YOUR SHOW OF SHOWS, through large screen originals like BLAZING SADDLES and YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN, Brooks has always shown a canny ability to seize upon the parody-worthy elements of genres that he surely relishes; and with a Chaucerian vulgarity he steps up to the writer's desk like a blindly and wildly swinging batter - sometimes knocking it out of the park, sometimes making one wince. Truth to tell, when I first saw his 1967 film version of THE PRODUCERS (Zero Mostel's "Max Bialystock" was a perfect onscreen counterpart - outsized almost to the point of grotesqueness and, like the author, outrageously funny), I was hopelessly addicted, though my favorite film critic of the time, Pauline Kael, rolled her eyes at the tastelessness of Brooks' sense of humor. (By the way, seek out a similarly bizarre comedy, THE TIGER MAKES OUT, with Eli Wallach and Anne Jackson, which came out at about the same time and, alas, seems to have fallen by the way.)

As the financially disaster-prone Max (played here with frenetic fervor by Philip Andrew Himebook, the erstwhile "Jean Valjean" of two local productions of LES MIS - a clever moment reminds us of this) finds a "match made in (mischievous) heaven" in the hysterical accountant "Leo Bloom" (a hilarious Lee Hudson Gilliland - and behind what stage door has he been hiding?), the glorious prospect of tapping the long-latent libidos of "little old ladies" to invest in what will surely be a disaster (leaving the two schemers buried in investments that no one would bother to question) offers Brooks the opportunity to corral all elements of theatrical production - God-awful actors and singers, preening and clueless director "Roger De Bris," and - most jaw-dropping of all - the Nazi-penned opus SPRINGTIME FOR HITLER, surely the most offensive and garish of enterprises. With all of these elements of disaster destined to come together, one might foresee a theatrical version of the LUSITANIA trying to give the TITANIC a lift; however, the reverse is true, and the backfire results in an unexpected reversal of fortune.

Mr. Brooks, abetted by Thomas Meehan, has reshaped the original in much the same way that he did YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN. (Truth to tell, as enjoyable and entertaining as the musical numbers are, they somewhat vitiate the "tightness" of the original films: The "trade off" is extending the running times of the musicals. I guess it's a matter of choosing between cinematic and theatrical "apples and oranges.") However, despite the nearly three hours' running time, it seems much less than that. There's so much infectious fun (and talent) here that length is, well, moot. (In fact, from the reactions and laughter of the opening night audience, an additional thirty minutes or so would be equally welcome.)

Guiding Theatre Memphis's first musical of the season is the gifted Cecelia Wingate, a seasoned talent who knows how to time a "goose step." Her previous successes in opening a season have included a much-honored version of Brooks' YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN and last season's THE ADDAMS FAMILY (seemingly destined to reap even more awards at this year's Ostranders). She is clearly a director who knows how to put a spin on this kind of material, and her "stock company" of players are more than willing accomplices. In addition to the perfectly cast Messrs. Himebook and Gilliland (their singing voices are wonderful), there's a delicious (and delicious to look at) comic turn by Christina Hernandez as the linguistically challenged "Ulla" (a part much altered from that in the original film), a hilarious and highly flammable portrayal of "Roger" by a closet-shattering Justin Asher (who comes perilously close to walking away with the show), a sllithery and waspish turn by Clark Richard Reeves as Roger's hair-tossing assistant, and an oddly sympathetic interpretation of the Hitler/Eva-worshipping "Franz" (author of SPRINGTIME) by Gregory Szatkowski, who manages to make the misguided Nazi a sweet-natured (if clearly misguided) soul. (By the way, when we first see him, he is tending his pigeons - and they are a sight to behold; whoever "costumed" and "choreographed" them deserves special recognition.)

There is, believe it or not, something substantive about all this. There"s a kind of love song near the end of the play that celebrates the unlikely friendship that has grown between Max and Leo: Ulla may be the physical attraction, but the opposite natures of this Laurel and Hardy "odd couple" make it clear that they need each other. Moreover, all the major "types" involved in SPRINGTIME are misfits -- despite their egos and obsessions. Realizing that they are society's "underdogs," we're rooting for them to overcome their idiosyncrasies and to succeed. When the audience misreads their efforts and bursts into applause, it's a genuinely gratifying moment.

Theatre Memphis has always managed to elicit praise for its costumes and sets, and THE PRODUCERS is no exception. Amie Eoff's costume designs must have had seamstresses accidentally stitching their fingers together: They're not only colorful and staggering in their diversity, but they are also quite witty. Moreover, the playground for all this talent has been magnificently staged by Jack Yates (his "staging" of SPRINGTIME FOR HITLER earns a standing ovation all its own). Let's face it: Everything builds to the SPRINGTIME number, and if it falters, so does the entire musical -- but not to worry. When that surreal procession of Teutonic lovelies descends the stairs, it's as if they were co-created by Flo Ziegfeld and Herman Goering: It's not so much a New World Order as an Out of This World Order. Every aspect of this THEATRE MEMPHIS shines here; it's hard to imagine any other opening show in town able to compete with this eye-popping opulence (those swirling swastikas have to be seen to be believed). In addition to Susan Stoman's original choreography, there is original work by Jared Johnson and Christi Hall. Musically, it's all held together by Jeffery B. Brewer. Through September 13.

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From This Author Joseph Baker

I received my Master of Arts Degree in English from Memphis State University and worked as an English instructor at Christian Brothers High School from (read more...)