To paraphrase a line from The Producers, Christmas came early to Live Arts this year, and guess who they stuffed in our stocking? Adolf Hitler! This holiday season, Live Art’s production of the wryly-humored musical by Mel Brooks and Thomas Meehan gives the gift of gut-splitting laughter. The Producers is deftly directed by Live Arts Executive Director Matt Joslyn, who took a break from managing to reconnect with the creative process. According to the playbill’s director notes, his primary objective with the show was to “play,” and play he does, in an over-the-top production with a 24-member cast, a 12-member production team, and a crew of 28, all of which manifests as a fast-moving kaleidoscope of craziness.
There’s no success like failure for Live Arts’ Doug Schneider and Kip McCharen, who bicker and cajole their way to accidental show-biz fame as Max and Leo in The Producers. Photo courtesy Live Arts.
The action begins on a sidewalk in front of a Broadway theater, on opening night of the latest flop by floundering producer Max Bialystock (Doug Schneider). Swirling, smiling patrons besmirch the show with ironic verve in “It’s Opening Night,” cleverly setting the mood for things to come. While lamenting the slump in his career, the greedy, showboating Bialystock is inspired by an observation made by his accountant Leo Bloom (Kip McCharen), that a producer can make more money from a stinker than a success. The duo sets out to make millions by producing the worst play Broadway has ever seen, and thus is born Springtime for Hitler, a musical idolizing the quintessential villain of the 20th century. Mayhem ensues as the show’s playwright and Nazi sympathizer, Franz Liebkind (Tom Howard) is cast in the lead role and flamboyant director Roger DeBris (Noah Grabeel) joins the production.
Live Arts’ show is kept at a breakneck tempo through Robert Benjamin’s well-executed lighting tricks, which keep the action focused on performing actors as others move set pieces, making scene changes practically unnoticeable. The large cast is cleverly manipulated by Joslyn’s brilliant blocking and choreographer Geri Carlson Sauls’ exuberant dance numbers, which utilize every inch of the available space without seeming crowded. Particularly clever is “Along Came Bialy” in which Sauls incorporates metal walkers for percussive and visual effects. But if there were an award for best production element, it would easily go to the costume crew. Kerry Moran and her volunteer staff designed and created an awe-inspiring 108 witty and wild costumes. The audience squealed with delight over the icons of a Springtime for Hitler fashion show, where a bevy of beauties paraded across the stage in a Ziegfeld Follies homage, dressed in showgirl representations of beer, pretzels, bratwurst, and a Wagnerian norse goddess. I laughed so hard my cheeks ached.
Although Joslyn performs miracles with his volunteer cast, all of whom achieve professional level performances, Schneider’s Bialystock dominates the show (and his creepy comb-over hair-do only helps). Schneider plays the role with such shameless sliminess and perfect comedic phrasing that lines like “Who do you have to fuck to get a break in this town?” go beyond offensive and become character defining. He is even able to elicit sympathy during his solo number “Betrayed,” without a hint of sappiness, which is a testament to his ability as an actor.
The one low ebb of this tidal wave of a show is a dance number between Leo and Ulla (Michelle Majorin), the sexy Swedish secretary. Though McCharen is delightfully in-character as the tightly wound Bloom, stilted in movement but purposefully so, and Majorin’s Swedish accent is flawless, the chemistry between the two comes off as frosty and a bit reserved. Those familiar with the play might be a tad underwhelmed here, but on the whole, the show is stellar.
The Producers won an unprecedented 12 Tony Awards when it opened on Broadway in 2001, and Live Arts has truly captured all the glitz, hilarity and irony of the original in its production. When Joslyn and company invite you to play, you’d do well to accept, and luckily, this invitation extends until mid-January.