BWW Review: Matthew McGee Showcases His Immense Talent in American Stage in the Park's Winning THE PRODUCERS
"By using the medium of comedy, we can rob Hitler of his posthumous power and myth." --Mel Brooks
You would be hard pressed to find a more hilarious show than THE PRODUCERS. On my list of greatest comedic musicals of all time, it rests at #2, one notch below A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum and ahead of The Book of Mormon. And when it is done right, when the stars align and the cast is as good as it gets, then it begins inching its way into that coveted #1 slot.
The American Stage in the Park's version of THE PRODUCERS is certainly done right. It's far from perfect, and I'm still debating whether or not it lends itself well to the whole "in the park" experience, but it's been a long time since I've had this much fun at any show. In this day and age, when people avoid the news because it's just so disturbing, we need THE PRODUCERS. So what if it includes a fey Hitler, a group of elderly ladies being pleasured by a money-hungry producer, and enough swastikas to disturb even your most ardent Alt-Right supporter, we need this show like never before.
Set in 1959, Mel Brooks' THE PRODUCERS has a simple enough premise: A producer and his nerdy accountant come up with a perfect scheme when they realize that they can get more money from a flop musical than a hit. They decide to create the worst show of all time with the juiciest title imaginable: Springtime for Hitler: A Gay Romp with Adolf and Eva at Berchtesgaden. But when their show becomes a surprise hit, and they will surely be sent to jail for fraud, what are they to do?
I strongly praise this particular production with two words: Matthew McGee. In the key role of producer Max Bialystock, he knocks this out of the park in a role so perfectly suited for his talents. We all have the image of Zero Mostel in the original movie in our minds, not to mention Nathan Lane's Tony-winning run in the 2001 stage version. But throw those out right now. This is McGee's show, and he owns it. He looks so much like John McGiver, and if that allusion throws you, just know that McGiver was a character actor who appeared in such films as Midnight Cowboy and The Manchurian Candidate as well as a Lepidopterist in an episode of "Gilligan's Island"; you may best remember his small role in Breakfast at Tiffany's, where he's the Tiffany's salesperson who agrees to inscribe a ring found in a Crackerjack box. But that's who came to mind as I watched McGee rightfully steal the show. If you can imagine McGiver, Maurice Evans and Jackie Coogan all rolled up in a single persona, then you get an idea of McGee here. He carries the whole show on his shoulders, and it's obviously quite a workout for him. It's also some of the best work of his life.
In Act 2, McGee gets to show off his performing chops and immense vocal skills with a rendition of "Betrayed" that rivals any other that has come before it. It's not inaccurate if we retitle this gem of a production "The Matt McGee Show." He's the heart and soul of THE PRODUCERS, and those people who only know McGee as a top-flight drag performer in our area are in for quite a surprising treat.
As Leo Bloom, Max's partner in crime, James LaRosa comes across forced, trying too hard for laughs at first. Then he eases into the role and quickly becomes an audience favorite. His singing is marvelous, as showcased in "I Wanna Be a Producer," and becomes one of the strongest of a very strong cast.
Gretchen Bieber as Ulla plays the role differently, more manipulative than manipulated, if that makes sense. Our world has changed, and it seems Ulla has changed with it. I'm still not sold on her different take of "When You've Got It, Flaunt It," but I understand the necessity for it. She sings it well, but is it the showstopper that it could have been?
Jim Sorensen is imposing as the Nazi playwright, Franz Liebkind. Although this part has never been my favorite in the show, Sorensen plays it for all it's worth.
The supremely talented Scott Daniel appears way too young-looking as the hack director, Roger DeBris. It's not an insult to suggest that he looks almost like a high schooler on stage in the role. He dons a gown in the first scene, and with all makeup on, he resembles Winslow Leach mixed with Loretta Young. He also gets the role of roles--when the lead actor of Springtime for Hitler is downed, Daniel gets to portray the fuhrer in all of his manic, hand-waving fury. His Hitler is sublime. (I wonder if that quote will ever appear in a collection of his press clippings: "His Hitler is sublime.") With his little speck of a mustache, he resembles Charlie Chaplin in The Great Dictator and sounds like Judy Garland on barbiturates (which is a compliment). It's a scream, and few actors can pull it off with the Sally Field you-like-me-you-really-like-me need for an audience's love.
Perhaps the best in the cast, aside from McGee, is Alex Ringler as Carmen Ghia, Roger's Boy Friday. He embraces all of the character's silliness, his sashaying demeanor, the proud queenliness, and his hissing of each s-sound. If water could walk, it would look like his entrance onstage. And every move of his gets a laugh, including a simple exit that turns into an arabesque. He's as good as any Carmen Ghia I've seen, even the great Roger Bart who originated the role on Broadway.
The ensemble is quite strong, with Trenton Bainbridge perfectly cast as the Aryan introducing "Springtime for Hitler." Tyler Fish is uproarious in a number of roles. Kellyanna Polk, Emily Bainbridge, April Berry, Emanuel Carrero, Alyssa Elrod, Alicia Thomas and Tyler Pirrung (as a blind violinist) all do fine work. Lauren Buglioli is always a standout onstage, joyfully chewing the scenery as an old lady ("Hold Me, Touch Me"), a homeless woman, and Shirley Markowitz, the butch lighting designer. Dequan Mitchell was a hoot in his cameo as O'Houlihan, and Charles Logan is a sight to behold, a literal standout, as Scott the Choreographer in "Keep It Gay." Upon his entrance, displaying his sizeable talents, I heard someone in the audience utter out of amazement, "Oh my!" It was quite hard not to laugh out loud throughout the number.
Director Rye Mullis guides the cast winningly, and choreographer Shain Stroff adds so much verve to the big numbers. There was a messiness to it during opening weekend, and I'm sure it will tighten as the run continues. Jerid Fox's yummy set is like an art deco pop-up book sprung to life. Mike Wood returns to the area as lighting designer, and once again does a superb job. I really like the rainbow flag lighting during the aforementioned "Keep It Gay." Although there were sound issues, they have improved greatly after the disastrous sound of the past few park productions (much of that improvement is thanks to Stephen Kraack).
Sometimes things went awry. Missing ledgers onstage became an issue of panic to the actors on stage, as did the sight of crew members who were still onstage during one of the scenes, the last one saved by Matt McGee in a great improvisational moment.
Music director Jeremy D. Silverman leads a terrific band, including David Estevez on keyboards, Patrick McKenzie on trumpet, Irv Goldberg on bass and the wonderful Burt Rushing on drums.
I still don't know if the show is "park worthy"; in other words, if it is the type of show that works best in a park setting. Sure, the comedy gold of THE PRODUCERS works anywhere, whether in a warehouse or the Straz. And people on lawn chairs, picnicking on blankets, drinking heavily, were having the time of their lives on the Saturday night that I attended. But the set changes were way too demanding for a romp in the park, way too clunky. And there was also constant fear of impending rain. It started sprinkling during "Keep It Gay," but thankfully stopped so we could enjoy one of theatre's most hilarious numbers; it's as if God said, "No, they need to keep keeping it gay, so I won't flood this show tonight."
I still wonder if this particular show lends itself to the park experience as well as, say, In the Heights a few years ago or perhaps next year's Mamma Mia. I don't have any answers. But I should add this: Where else will I get to enjoy two heavily inebriated men serenading me with "Bohemian Rhapsody" during intermission? Yes, they forget many of the lyrics, so I had to chime in quite often, but it's memories like this one that make the American Stage in the Park shows such a Happening. As those two Queen crooners proved, sometimes what happens in the Demens Landing audience is as funny as any of the shenanigans onstage.
American Stage in the Park's production of THE PRODUCERS runs at Demens Landing in St. Petersburg thru May 13. For tickets, please call (727) 823-PLAY (7529).