Review: THE PRODUCERS at Desert Theatreworks

Desert Theatreworks is Back with a Howlingly Funny Production

By: Oct. 18, 2021
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Review: THE PRODUCERS at Desert Theatreworks

I had a great time at THE PRODUCERS, the first post-lockdown Desert Theatreworks (DTW) show. This rip-roaring production is perfect to welcome eager audiences back - a true winner.

Ron and Lance Phillips, the married couple that operates DTW, took the opportunity of the hiatus to completely rework the Indio Performing Arts Center, adding a new 250-seat main stage for musicals, converting the old, 125-seat stage for plays, and building a cabaret and black box theater in the remaining space. THE PRODUCERS might have been excellent without the larger stage and the new lighting and sound system (goodbye to my frequent complaints about feedback and crackling), but the new facility definitely contributes to the professional feel of this 501(c)(3) community theatre. One thing that has not changed is the high quality of DTW's talented casts and crews. There are no weak links in THE PRODUCERS.

I probably don't need to issue a "trigger warning" about a well-known show such as THE PRODUCERS, for which Mel Brooks wrote the music and lyrics and collaborated on the book (with Thomas Meehan), but I will: Politically correct, it's not - outrageous is a better description. But that is the whole point. Max Bialystock, a Broadway producer in 1959, has had a string of flops. When a brilliant but immature accountant, Leopold Bloom - who knew that Mel Brooks channels ULYSSES? - audits Max's books, and remarks that no one really pays attention to the balance sheets of a flop, a scheme is born to produce the worst musical possible, and to oversell shares and abscond with the dough. How can they guarantee a flop? Pick a script by a Nazi lunatic, choreograph numbers with dancers dressed like Nazi soldiers, and name the show "Springtime for Hitler." A guaranteed flop, indeed ... well, maybe not.Review: THE PRODUCERS at Desert Theatreworks

The show is filled with biting satire, with many groups in Mel Brooks' cross-hairs, from sex-starved senior citizens to drag queens. That's a real swastika on the armbands. The musical cleans up some of the homophobic content in the original movie (for example, by eliminating the term "fruit"), but Carmen Ghia (Kevin Barry), Roger De Bris (Timm McBride), and their minions are definitely over-the-top. However, an anachronistic song and dance number "Keep it Gay" - the term was not yet in use in 1959 to describe people attracted to the same sex - and a few comments by Max make clear that, unlike in the movie, this Max does not look down on gay people.

Review: THE PRODUCERS at Desert Theatreworks

Mr. Pacas, who looks something like William Shatner (when Mr. Shatner was a lot younger), is perfectly suited to play a smooth-talking con artist over whom ladies my age go gaga. Frankly, I can't picture the rumpled Zero Mostel attracting that kind of sex-crazed, fangirl attention from ladies who should know better, but the suave Mr. Pacas is crush material.

Neither Mr. Pacas nor Raul Valenzuela, who plays Leo Bloom, is Jewish, and in the original film and stage musical, which are filled with Yiddishkeit, Bialystock and Bloom are obviously meant to be Jewish. a??In my opinion, director Daniela Ryan wisely avoids potential offense about casting non-Jewish performers to play obviously Jewish roles by having Max kneel in prayer and cross himself, showing that Michael Pacas's Max is actually gentile. The Jewish references morph into general New York references instead, and the director and performer avoid the risk of the kind of stereotyping in which only Mel Brooks, himself, could engage without endangering his career.

As for Leo Bloom, Mr. Valenzuela, who has a near-operatic singing voice, plays him as a rubber-faced teddy bear. His portrayal is ethnically neutral, and deliciously, bat guano crazy. When he and Michael Pacas get together in the scene where Leo becomes hysterical and clutches his blankie, the result is sublime.Review: THE PRODUCERS at Desert Theatreworks

I very much applaud Ms. Ryan's decision to tone down some of Mel Brooks's more bizarre characterizations both in the lead and secondary characters. They're still hilarious, but not embarrassingly so, and the performers clearly have a lot of fun with their goofball characters. Emily Unnasch, who plays Swedish bombshell Ulla, finds just the right amount of vapid goofiness to garner laughs without being outrageous. She is also portrayed as having normal body proportions, which, as a female, I greatly appreciate. In fact, I found the character likable, for which I congratulate both Ms. Unnasch and Ms. Ryan.

Roger De Bris (Timm McBride) and his "common law assistant" Carmen Ghia (Kevin Barry) are portrayed as proudly out - WAAAAYYYY out - but their performances are hilarious, and even understated compared to some portrayals I've seen. And Alden Dickey (as Franz Liebkind) is a joy to listen to and watch as he sings paeans to Hitler and the Third Reich and dances with his adorable pigeons, which are apparently puppets that someone controls from their pen. Stephen Blackwell, billed only as a member of the ensemble, wows with his Village People costume and his lovely singing, and the rest of the Hitler wannabes are also top-notch.

Review: THE PRODUCERS at Desert Theatreworks

The dancers in the ensemble are key to the story and are primarily younger members of the company. These kids, in at least some cases, have come through DTW's own excellent training program. They can really move, and their talent dramatically kicks up (pun intended) the quality of the musical numbers. I daresay that, without such high quality dancers in a dance-heavy show such as this, it would be almost impossible to produce THE PRODUCERS. Stacey Casaluci-Grenrock, Daniela Ryan, and Violet Feath, who together provided additional choreography (as well as bringing to life the original Broadway choreography by Susan Strohmann) and co-dance captains Alli Mendoza and Ms. Feath deserve special recognition, as does Lead Stormtrooper Angus Feath.

The technical aspects of the show are also superb. Lance Phillips's set design is imaginative, although the stage left platform that holds Max's office, in my opinion, is a bit cramped; I kept worrying that the performers would fall off during the numerous physical comedy bits that take place there. I especially loved the 1950's style frosted door with Max's name painted directly on the glass and the cabinet with the list and descriptions of Max's paramours. Nick Wass's high-quality, zany projections provide additional humor.Review: THE PRODUCERS at Desert Theatreworks

The entire cast and crew, without exception, deserve to be proud of their achievement, even though it, gulp, requires ignoring the show's bad taste. However, Bialystock and Bloom clearly aren't buying what Franz Liebkind is selling - look for their version of the Nazi salute towards the end of Act One.

The rest of the ensemble consists of Jana Baumann, Robert Gunther, Larry Martin, Laura Martinez, Tess Phillips, and Karen Schmitt. Ron Phillips produced the show. The rest of the crew is Rebecca McWilliams (production manager/costume/props), Timm McBride (hair and makeup), Jeff Mazar (lighting design), Maddox Phillips (stage manager), Tess Phillips and Amanda Kaye (assistant stage managers), Doug Wilson (musical director), David Caris (follow spot), and Jeremiah Garcia (sound operator).

How To Get Tickets

THE PRODUCERS will run through Sunday, October 31st. Evening shows are at 7:30. Matinees are at 2:00 p.m. All performances take place at the Indio Performing Arts Center, 45175 Fargo Street, Indio, CA 92201. Check the ticket purchase information at for specific prices and schedules or call (760)980-1455.Review: THE PRODUCERS at Desert Theatreworks

Proof of COVID-19 vaccination, either physical or electronic, is required to attend DTW shows during the 2021/2022 Season. You will be asked to provide such proof when entering the lobby for your performance. If you forget to bring your proof, every effort will be made to reschedule your attendance based on availability.

The rest of the season's offerings consist of:

MURDER AT THE Howard Johnson'S, By Ron Clark and Sam Bobrick (November 5-21, 2021). A laugh-out-loud riot featuring a woman, her husband, and her lover hatching hilarious murder schemes...unsuccessfully.

WINTER WONDERETTES, Written & Created by Roger Bean (December 3-23, 2021).This seasonal celebration finds the 60's girl group"The Wonderettes" entertaining at the annual Harper's Hardware holiday party. Featuring classic holiday pop hits from the 50's and 60's.

ALWAYS, PATSY CLINE, By Ted Swindley (January 7-February 6, 2022). Based on the true story of one wild night in 1961 Houston, when single mom Louise Seger became fast friends with her idol, Patsy Cline. Featuring Patsy Cline's music.

Neil Simon's I OUGHT TO BE IN PICTURES (February 11-March 13, 2022). Herb Tucker is a struggling Hollywood screenwriter suffering from writer's block when his forgotten past shows up on his doorstep in the form of Libby, the teenage daughter he abandoned, along with her mother and brother, years earlier.

LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS, Book and Lyrics by Howard Ashman & Music by Alan Menken (March 18-April 10, 2022). A musical send-up of '50s B movies that has devoured the hearts of theatergoers for more than 30 years.

PHOTO CREDIT: Paul Hayashi


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