Chicago Theater Review: THE PRODUCERS (Mercury Theater Chicago)

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by Lawrence Bommer on April 22, 2016

in Theater-Chicago


It’s always springtime for Mel Brooks, who really does write musicals the way they used to. Even before Young Frankenstein, his 2001 triumph The Producers (based on the sidesplitting 1968 film with Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder) reverts to the anything-for-a-laugh, neo-vaudevillian, politically incorrect musicals of its 1959 setting. Giving a new meaning to “putting on” a show, it flaunts an unrepentantly melodious score, Eisenhower-era evening wear, and stereotypes that offend for miles (especially gays and Germans).

MercuryTheaterChicago, The Producers - Bill Larkin (Max Bialystock), Matt Crowle (Leo Bloom)

Appropriately, this retro revel about fraudster producers who hit paydirt when they least want to pays fulsome tributes to Times Square and Tin Pan Alley and the dreamer-schemers behind a neo-Nazi, gay-as-a-goose pastiche. More appropriately, it belongs to Brooks, a natural-born musical-comedy showman who found a very different fame in Hollywood. Who else could contrast a cooing chorus of Nazi-loving pigeons with a “kick” line of geriatric grannies on walkers? Who else could turn the conquest of Europe into a Ziegfeld production number?

MercuryTheaterChicago, The Producers - Full ensemble

Gloriously revived in a painfully funny revival by Chicago’s Mercury Theatre, with scathing sets by Jeffrey D. Kimec and skewering costumes by Frances Maggio, The Producers is theatrical catnip. Ingenious, wonderfully old-fashioned and righteously wrong-headed, it will appeal to fans of the film and to the innocents who never saw it. (Unlike Young Frankenstein, The Producers’ musicalization often improves on its original.) Heeding the campy philosophy of a dog-whistle number like “Keep It Gay”, this infectious travesty is a love letter to Broadway and the tasteless tyros who could make a neo-Nazi “gay romp” an unwanted hit. The success of this confection, however, is inevitable.

MercuryTheaterChicago, The Producers - Allison Sill (Ulla), Bill Larkin (Max Bialystock), Matt Crowle (Leo Bloom)

Sublimely silly and unashamedly offensive, Brooks’s “tired businessman” musical (adapted with Thomas Meehan) got its sailing certificate at Chicago’s Palace Theatre sixteen years ago — truly an opening night to remember. Garnering a record 12 Tony Awards and capacity crowds on Broadway, The Producers both skewers showbiz clichés and, by flagrant example, celebrates Broadway’s glorious excess with an anthology of shtick. The songs (music and lyrics by Brooks, arrangements by Glen Kelly and Doug Besterman) sell the story (and vice versa).

MercuryTheaterChicago, The Producers - Bill Larkin (Max Bialystock) and the Little Old Ladies

Faithful, as in funny, L. Walter Stearns’s lean and hungry staging reinvents Brooks’s irreverence at every twist. This funny farm serves tons of ham, namely the lovable title gonifs and their family of showbiz freaks. As Max Bialystock and Leo Bloom, Chicago clown princes Bill Larkin and Matt Crowle reign supreme, the former shyster scheming up a storm, the latter accountant sweetly needy and neurotic with his adenoidal warble and late-blooming lust for life. Happily, they break the audience up more than each other.

MercuryTheaterChicago, The Producers - Sawyer Smith (Carmen Ghia), Matt Crowle (Leo Bloom), Jason Richards (Roger DeBris), Bill Larkin (Max Bialystock)

Stearns backs up their ferocious folly with ironclad comic casting and music director Eugene Dizon digs gold from every note. Playing Adolf’s die-hard devote Franz Liebkind (the Fuhrer’s “lovechild”), Harter Clingman clomps the stuffings out of the always infectious “Haben Sie Gehoert Das Deutsche Band?” Scrumptious Allison Sill is “yumpin-yimminy” yummy as Swedish sizzler Ulla (who becomes repressed Leo’s salacious salvation). As magnificently mincing director Roger De Bris and his flaming acolyte Carmen Ghia, Jason Robards and Sawyer Smith both exploit and explode every lavender stereotype, past and future.

MercuryTheaterChicago, The Producers - Matt Crowle (Leo Bloom), Bill Larkin (Max Bialystock)

Cunningly choreographed by Brigitte Ditmars, the righteously rampaging ensemble cuts loose in an elderly-matron ballet complete with walkers; a jailhouse romp worthy of Elvis (“Prisoners of Love”); and, above—or beneath–all, the Teutonic overkill of “Springtime for Hitler.” (“We’re marching to a faster pace / Look out! Here comes the master race.”) The latter, unfortunately, can’t work as well in the The Producersmusical as in the movie: In the former there’s no way to show the opening-night audience about to walk out on what should have been a fiasco—until “Hitler” appears and saves the show. The film shows how “Springtime for Hitler” could easily have gone rightly wrong. Inevitably something gets lost in translation.

In the second act Brooks and Meehan are smart enough to wax sentimental and make clear what’s really at stake. And it’s not whether unscrupulous impresarios can make it rich by cooking the books and collecting more investments than a flop show will ever to pay off to little old ladies or the IRS. No, it’s the strangely symbiotic partnership between Larkin’s mad Max, hitherto enterprising but empty, and his surrogate son and unlikely friend Leo. Amid all the pell-mell pratfalls, double takes, punch lines, and zinger wisecracks with pauses for guffaws, rubber-faced Larkin and deer-in-the-headlights Crowle miss no opportunity to craft this bond and make it matter. These grifters really are good for each other.

Make no mistake, this “past-due” musical really belongs to 1959. But laughter never dates. To embrace the producers’ venal values, count on getting 20 laughs for every dollar you hand the box office. With change.

photos by Brett A. Beiner

The Producers
Mercury Theater Chicago
3745 North Southport Avenue
Wed at 7:30; Thurs at 3 and 7:30;
Fri at 8; Sat at 3 and 8; Sun at 3 and 7:30
ends on June 26, 2016
for tickets, call 773.325.1700 or visit Mercury Theater

for more theater info, visit Theatre in Chicago

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