BWW Review: Center for the Arts' Zany THE PRODUCERS is More Fun Than the Law Allows
Bold, brash and totally bonkers - but only in the very best of ways to be found in a big Broadway musical - The Producers scores another hit for Murfreesboro's Center for the Arts (where its run ends this weekend), thanks to strong direction by Chris McLaurin and Natalie Quinn and to a cast of actors who are in on all the jokes and are game to do it up right for their audiences. The result is a zany, fast-paced, totally uproarious and completely ridiculous night of theater that pokes fun at everyone while telling the tale of two producers yearning to strike it rich with the worst show ever to play the Great White Way.
John Frost Jr. and Tucker Young are ideally cast as the two nefarious producers (one fresh off the mega-flop Funny Boy, a daft musicalization of Hamlet; while the other is a showbiz neophyte, escaping from his humdrum accountant's life), and McLaurin and Quinn have surrounded the pair with a top-flight ensemble eager to please, to pander for the easiest laugh and willing to appear as ludicrous as the show they're in. It's riotously funny, wonderfully offensive and amazingly entertaining.
What else could you possibly expect? It's from the mind of Mel Brooks, based on his acclaimed 1967 film of the same name - and those 12 Tony Awards the show won for its Broadway debut were certainly no fluke.
With a book by Brooks and Thomas Meehan, along with music and lyrics by the multi-talented Brooks, The Producers is at once a valentine to musical theater and a send-up of its over-the-top theatricality and the wild and wacky personalities who bring the genre to rollicking life.
Frost, Young and company - which includes Poem Atkinson as the Swedish blonde bombshell Ulla, Russell Forbes as Roger DeBris (the worst director on the main stem) and Ryan Fiero as his "common law" assistant, Jared Taylor as playwright Franz Liebkind (whose loyalties to the fatherland and the Fuhrer have never been more fervent), Callum Ammons as the Aryan poster/chorus boy, a bevy of tap-dancing showgirls and a fractured and fractious collection of elderly women eager to write checks in exchange for some delightful afternoon adventures - deliver the comedic goods while singing to beat the band in musical numbers as outlandish as any of which you might conceive. The situations are far-fetched, but still believable in a decidedly off-kilter way, the humor rib-tickling and everyone from white supremacists to overly dramatic gays, Jews and CPAs, G-men and Irish police officers are given equal mistreatment via Brooks' trademark humor. It's barbed and dangerous, to be sure, but inoffensive (for the most part) and you'll be laughing out loud despite your best, politically correct intentions.
In the almost 20 years since its Broadway bow, The Producers has become a favorite of regional and community theaters (not to mention touring companies and theater entities far-flung and widely disseminated) - so much so, in fact, that everyone within the sound of my clicking keyboard probably is familiar with the show's daft and demented plot. After flamboyant producer Max Bialystock's (played by the aforementioned Frost) musical take-off on Hamlet (Funny Boy) bombs at the box office, milquetoast accountant Leo Bloom (Young) shows up to do the books and off-handedly remarks that a producer could conceivably make much more money on a show that fails rather than a hit show. A complete and total musical flop, perhaps, might prove the ticket to fortune, if not some sort of vainglorious fame, and provide enough cash to finance a sumptuous lifestyle in a wonderfully tropical setting. With that idea in mind, Bialystock and Bloom set out to create the worst Broadway musical since Thespis stepped out of the chorus.
Setting the stage for the most Tony-honored Broadway musical in history, the plot of The Producers plays on every stereotype in theatrical lore, providing a rollicking and rambunctious entertainment quite unlike anything you've seen before - or since - and the CFTA production is as twisted as they come. McLaurin, Quinn and their creative team, which includes costume designer Lisa McLaurin (who once again outfits her cast in magnificently show-stopping style), music director Stephanie Jones, choreographers Melissa Becker and Lydia McLaurin and set designer Katie Boothe, along with a stable of actors who seem to be having the best time the law allows onstage, hit another theatrical home run with their show. Last time, this gang got together they served up a delicious diversion with The Pirates of Penzance.
Frost, who has made a specialty of playing the eccentric sidekick over the past few years, is given the opportunity of a lifetime to play Max Bialystock: the character allows the actor to pull from his sizable bag of tricks to deliver a terrific performance that ensures all eyes are on him throughout the show. Meanwhile, Young (last seen on the CFTA stage as the crippled Crutchie in Newsies) displays amazing versatility as the ambitious Leo Bloom. Together, the two men have stage presence to spare and as their two characters become the best of show buddies, their chemistry is palpable.
Poem Atkinson is well-cast as Ulla Inga Hansen Benson Yansen Tallen Hallen Svaden Swanson, the beautiful Swede seeking Broadway stardom ("When You've Got It, Flaunt It"), seizing every opportunity to show off her own acting chops and impeccable comic timing.
And as good as the three leading players are - and, trust me, they are terrific! - special notice must be given to the two actors who steal the show right out from under them: Russell Forbes as the fabulously fey Roger Elizabeth DeBris and Jared Taylor as uber-Nazi Franz Liebkind.
Forbes has made a name for himself on stages throughout Middle Tennessee as overtly effeminate characters, but none has been played with more panache than Roger (whom first we meet in a stunning beaded gown that makes him look like the Chrysler building). Forbes' Roger is a campy cut-up, so self-assured and demanding that he suggests changing the script's second act to ensure the Nazis win the war and then (not unlike Shirley MacLaine taking over for Carol Haney in The Pajama Game) takes over the leading role of Adolph "Elizabeth" Hitler when Franz Liebkind takes a pre-show exhortation to "break a leg" a little too seriously. Rising to the occasion of The Producers, Taylor quite frankly has never been better, showing off impressive comedy skills to become his character with chilling results. Who wears his role best? Consider the answer to be a kind of Sophie's choice.
Among the remainder of the cast, Ryan Fiero gives an equally fabulous performance as Roger's assistant Carmen Ghia, while Callum Ammons plays every small role entrusted to him to the hilt (at one moment, he's a jack-booted, "Heil Hitler"-saluting SS officer clad in a Hugo Boss-inspired uniform, the next an old woman brandishing a walker) and Britton Clark shines in a variety of ensemble roles that prove the old adage about "no small roles" - you can't help but notice him when he walks onstage. Actually, every actor in the cast gives noteworthy performances in The Producers, their shared glee apparent in every moment.
The Producers. Book by Mel Brooks and Thomas Meehan. Music and lyrics by Mel Brooks. Directed by Chris McLaurin and Natalie Quinn. Musical direction by Stephanie Jones. Choreography by Melissa Becker and Lydia McLaurin. Presented by Center for the Arts, Murfreesboro. Through April 7. For further details about CFTA's season, go to www.boroarts.org.