by Ryan Leeds
After leaving Paper Mill Playhouse earlier this week, where a terrific production of The Producers is being staged, my guest turned to me and asked, “I wonder if, in 70 years, there will be a show like this about Donald Trump?” Although she was half-joking, it is indeed a harrowing thought and yet, one can’t help but to draw parallels between the two megalomaniacal political figures.
For that reason, it seems like particularly good timing for Paper Mill’s version of the 2001 smash hit musical that earned 12 Tony Awards and ran for 6 years. Is it as funny as we remembered? The answer: a resounding “Yes.”
Max Bialystock (Michael Kostroff), a once well-regarded producer of Broadway hits, has now fallen into a creative slump and “wears a rented tux that’s 10 weeks overdue”. After meeting a nebbish accountant, Leo Bloom (David Josefsberg), the pair enact a scheme to find the worst musical ever written, intentionally produce it as a flop, take the money that was given to them by investors, and flee the country to Rio de Janiero.
Upon reading script after script, the two stumble upon “Springtime For Hitler”, a love letter to the Fuhrer, written by Franz Liebkind (John Tracey Eagan). Liebkind is perpetually loyal to the leader of the Third Reich and swears that Bilaystock and Bloom to uphold the good name of Adolf “Elizabeth” Hitler (Liebkind shares some loony insight to the fact that Hitler was descended from a long line of Elizabeths.) Bialystock and Bloom call on noted theater director Roger De Bris (Kevin Pariseau) and his swishy, flamboyant assistant/boyfriend, Carmen Ghia (Mark Price), who decide to pep up the tone of the show by “Keeping It Gay”.
Trust me: No homosexual stereotype is left behind, nor is the straight man’s objectification of women either. When naive Swedish bombshell Ulla Inga Hansen Benson Yansen Tallen Hallen Svaden Swanson (Ashley Spencer) arrives at Bialystock’s office, the two ogle and fawn over her as if she were manna from heaven. And Spencer is, in fact, a godsend. Her brassy vocals stand out in this already dynamite cast.
Ordinarily, depictions like this would be dated and hugely offensive. How then, can we justify material that is based on a 1967 movie that starred Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder? One name: Mel Brooks. Brooks has mastered the art of laughing with—and at—everyone, including himself and his fellow Jews. Nothing is sacred from his pen, but it is not done with malicious intent. True, he has drawn ire and protest from World War II Jewish veterans who have taken him to task for his lighthearted approach. If over-the-top stereotypes and Borscht belt yuks are not your thing, then you’re probably better to sit this one out.
For the rest of us, however, this is good, old-fashioned musical theater frivolity turned on its ear. Personally, I can’t think of a better way to disgrace one of history’s most ruthless leaders than by turning him into a nelly “German Ethel Merman” and dancing on his grave. Pariseau chews up the scenery and along with Price, offers gut-busting moments.
Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick, who starred in the original Broadway cast, were as synonymous as Lewis and Martin. Their star power was undeniably box office gold. Still, The Producers is a solid show that succeeds without big name personalities splashed on the marquee. Kostroff and Josefsberg create wonderful stage chemistry and carry the show with effortless talent.
Director Don Stephenson sticks close to the original direction (why re-invent the wheel?) and Bill Burns captures the same energetic choreography as Susan Stroman. All of the walkers in Little Old Lady Land are here, along with the Busby Berkeley swastika formation in “Springtime for Hitler.”
Musically, there is nothing particularly groundbreaking about the score. It’s been said that Brooks plunked down a few melodies and the rest was orchestrated. Still, there are some pleasant tunes and lyrically, there are equal parts camp, wit, and shtick. Under James Moore’s stellar music direction, the orchestra shines.
Paper Mill Playhouse, riding high from their 2016 Regional Theatre Tony Award, is off to a strong start with their 2016-2017 season. Next, they will unintentionally reach new levels of camp when Deborah Cox takes center stage in The Bodyguard: The Musical. I guess Roger De Bris won’t be the only “Queen of the Night” in Millburn this year.
Paper Mill Playhouse
22 Brookside Drive · Millburn, New Jersey
Through October 23
Ryan Leeds is a freelance theater journalist who lives in Manhattan. He is the Chief Theater Critic for Manhattan Digest and a frequent contributor to Dramatics Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @Ry_Runner or on Facebook.