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MailTribune.com
  • Camelot's 'Producers' delights

  • "The Producers," which opened Friday night at Camelot Theatre in Talent, is patently offensive, breathtakingly tasteless and the funniest thing you'll see this year. Artistic Director Livia Genise has a way with Broadway musicals, and this one may be the biggest, boldest, most bodacious ever mounted (there's even a smirky joke at that theatrical verb) at Camelot.
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  • "The Producers," which opened Friday night at Camelot Theatre in Talent, is patently offensive, breathtakingly tasteless and the funniest thing you'll see this year. Artistic Director Livia Genise has a way with Broadway musicals, and this one may be the biggest, boldest, most bodacious ever mounted (there's even a smirky joke at that theatrical verb) at Camelot.
    Picture two old-fashioned comics. The first is deadpan. The second can barely get the joke out for cracking up. But if the material is good enough, the audience is swept along. "The Producers" is an extended riff of the second kind, an absurd, comic juggernaut giddy with its power to keep topping itself.
    There's a lot to top. From the cooing chorus girl/pigeons atop the Greenwich Village digs of deranged Nazi playwright Franz Liebkind to Swedish bombshell Ulla Inga Hansen Benson Yansen Tallen Hallen Svaden Swanson auditioning for the job of "secretary-slash-receptionist" to the towering Don Matthews camping it up as Roger De Bris ("the worst director on Broadway") playing a flamboyantly gay Führer in the big production number "Springtime for Hitler."
    That preposterous musical — where could it come from but the fevered imagination of Mel Brooks? — is the device on which everything turns. You've probably seen either the 1968 movie with Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder or the 2005 redo with Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick, but let's recap.
    Max Bialystock (David King-Gabriel), once the king of Broadway, has just had another flop with "Funny Boy," a musical version of Hamlet. Fallen on hard times, he's become a play-for-pay seducer of the well-heeled little old ladies he keeps conning into writing investment checks made out to his next play, a thing called "Cash."
    Enter timid accountant Leo Bloom (Peter Wickliffe), who carries a little blue security blanket to ward off panic attacks and has Mitty-esque visions of glory. Persuaded by Max to cook the books of his last flop, for which Max had raised $2,000 more than the production cost, Leo has a killer of an idea: "Under the right circumstances, a producer could actually make more money with a flop than he can with a hit."
    Dollar signs light up in Max's eyes. Leo, after a fantasy sequence dramatizing his soul-sucking office job, realizes his true calling ("I Wanna Be a Producer"), the stars align, and a plot is hatched.
    The boys will find the worst play ever written, hire the worst director in town, find the worst actors on Broadway, raise $2 million ("One for me, one for you," Max tells Leo) by overselling shares, then de-camp to Rio when the turkey closes after opening night.
    Hey. What could possibly go wrong?
    The show, with an esthetic best described as Busby Berkeley meets Leni Riefenstahl meets RuPaul, is an improbable hit. Mistaken as satire by the audience, it is hailed by critics, creating a major problem for the boys ("Where Did We Go Right?").
    By this point the show has managed to offend gays, Jews, women, audiences, Germans, Swedes, critics, prosperous widows of a certain age, Bavarian peasants and — you get the idea. It has also aroused an audience already craving raw meat with those great (if not quite memorable) tunes by Brooks (yup), its frenzied choreography (who can forget the widows and their dancing walkers?) and beyond-spectacular costumes.
    But the silly, let's-put-on-a-show plot — call it high-concept, low art — is really just the armature on which Brooks, a nice Jewish boy from Brooklyn, hangs a manic mix of gags, send-ups and mashugana madness knocking around in his head from growing up and working in the golden days of the Broadway musical.
    King-Gabriel's Max is a canny mix of the shameless huckster and the strutting glamor that was Broadway in the days of Merrick. Wickliffe's Bloom (a Joycean name that, like others in the play, is a joke) is a repressed little nerd who allows himself to dream of wearing a "Broadway producer's hat" and winds up singing and hoofing with the elan of an old pro.
    And Brooks' glee as an equal-opportunity offender — remember, he wrote the original film in the pre-political-correctness 1960s — is so irresistible that any offense given quickly drowns in a sea of laughs. The tone of the play, in fact, lacks a certain darkness that marked the 1968 movie.
    There have been some changes. Flower-power icon Lorenzo St. Dubois (LSD), who played Hitler in the original film, has disappeared (the setting is pre-hippy 1959). The role of Ulla has been fleshed out (ahem), and Hammond's Ulla is dead-on as a platinum amalgam of Norse sex-goddesses from Garbo to Eckberg.
    Liebkind (whose name means lovechild) has become more comical. In fact, dour-faced Nathan Monks as a beefy, petulant Nazi in lederhosen almost steals the show with his snappy rendition of "Hitler's favorite song," a fetching number called "Der Gutten Tag Hop-Clop" and his outrage at discovering der Führer has been disrespected.
    It must have been no little challenge for Camelot's designers and costumers to match the antic spirit of the script, but they have triumphed, delivering a gay/Nazi/kitschy mise-en-scene, the apotheosis of which is the costumed DeBris in a headdress-topped outfit that makes him feel like the Chrysler Building.
    The Broadway production called for a huge orchestra, but the score is ably delivered here by just five off-stage musicians, who sound like more. Video projections add visual flash and tongue-in-cheek comment.
    If "The Producers" has a flaw, it's that the second act goes on a bit long after the climactic scene in which DeBris is forced to jump into the role of Hitler when Liebkind breaks a leg (not in the opening-night sense but literally). Matthews' flouncing about the stage as a diva dictator emotionally overcome by the love of his fans is a point of antic madness beyond which the show can no longer rise.
    Max's trial, Leo and Ulla's flight to Rio, the prison schtick and the "Goodbye" number are thus somewhat anticlimactic. But the whole thing is a crazed love letter, and sometimes, even in love, the crazy just overwhelms.
    Bill Varble writes about arts and entertainment for the Mail Tribune. He can be reached at varble.bill@gmail.com.
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