'The Producers': Two parts great acting, a strong infusion of Mel Brooks

Village Theatre's production of 'The Producers' is spot-on, thanks to fabulous actors and Mel Brooks' unflinching genius.
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Richard Gray as Max and Brian Earp as Leo in Village Theatre's "The Producers"

Village Theatre's production of 'The Producers' is spot-on, thanks to fabulous actors and Mel Brooks' unflinching genius.

Mel Brooks is a genius. He can act, write, direct, and compose (he’s one of the few people to have won an Oscar, an Emmy, a Grammy, and a Tony) and with The Producers – the original 1968 movie version, the 2001 Broadway musical, and the 2005 film of the musical – he’s created a comic franchise that keeps audiences rolling in the aisles year after year.

Although there are minor differences between the original film, for which Brooks won a Best Screenplay Oscar, and the musical, which won 12 Tony Awards, the basic premise is the same. Broadway producer Max Bialystock strong-arms meek accountant Leo Bloom into joining him in a surefire scheme to make a fortune. They will oversell financial interests in the worst musical with the worst director and cast they can find, then abscond “to Rio” with the money when the show bombs on the first night.

They think they’ve hit the jackpot when they discover the script for “Springtime for Hitler,” written by a crazed former Nazi who keeps pigeons as a hobby. They hire the most inept production crew they know (led by a cross-dressing director who is shocked to learn that “the Third Reich was Germany"), confident that audiences will be horrified. In fact, the opening night crowd loves what they take as inspired satire (which in fact it is), the show is an immediate hit, and Max and Leo are sunk.

For fans of the 1968 film starring the brilliant Zero Mostel as Max and Gene Wilder as Leo, the very idea of a Brooks musical based on the film was unbelievable. How could he possibly reach the comedic heights of the movie? But Brooks did more than that; he surpassed himself and when the road show came through Seattle I was stunned. Brooks had captured the razzle-dazzle of the greatest Broadway shows with a script and musical numbers that were even funnier than those in the movie and characters even more wacky than in their original incarnation.

With a situation this zany and songs and jokes so over the top, virtually any professional production of the musical Producers is likely to succeed. It’s unfair to expect a local company like Village Theatre to reproduce the full-blown extravaganza of a Broadway show or actors the caliber of Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick (the original Max and Leo), but director Steve Tomkins does a bang-up job of using the Village’s smallish stage to best effect.

His staging of the piece-de-résistance — “Springtime for Hitler” — is a wonder of goose-stepping chorines, twinkling black and red swastikas, and fanciful costumes festooned with stereotypes of German culture: frankfurters, beer steins, pretzels, and intimations of Brünnhilde.

The sets are a scaled down but delightful version of the Broadway originals and the Village Theatre orchestra plays Brooks’ hummable score with its characteristic verve.

As for the cast, every player is picture-perfect, their ability to keep a straight face while uttering the most outrageous lines impressive. Both Richard Gray as Max and Brian Earp as Leo make the roles their own and we never feel they’re impersonating the giants — Mostel, Wilder, Lane, or Broderick. Gray is just as believable as a Lothario to old ladies as he is a bumbling producer and his solo musical recap of the plot is simultaneously hilarious and heartwarming. This Max is essentially a kind-hearted schlub, desperate for a way out of his ruinous financial circumstances and well aware of the moral morass he has gotten himself into.

As Leo, Brian Earp sounds remarkably like Matthew Broderick when he speaks, although his singing voice is better and more resonant than Broderick’s. In a role that can easily be over-acted (as some would argue Wilder did in the original film), Earp manages to make Leo’s evolution from schlemiel to mensch credible. He’s a talented physical comedian, but keeps the schtick enough in check that his Leo stops just short of total caricature.

David Anthony Lewis, an actor I’ve never seen before, chews up the scenery as the Nazi playwright Franz. With his booming voice and commanding stage presence, Lewis more than holds his own against a chorus of swastika-wearing, Seig-heiling pigeons in the number “In Old Bavaria” and is equally compelling as a straight actor and song-and-dance man.

As the flaming gay director Roger Debris, Nick DeSantis may have the toughest job. When we first meet Debris, he’s on his way to a drag ball dressed “like the Chrysler Building”; it’s a testament to Brooks’ brilliant writing and DeSantis’ ability to carry it off that, in this politically correct era, Debris never offends. Chris Ensweiler takes the joke even further as Debris’ fey “common law assistant” Carmen Ghia, dressed in all black and overdone eye shadow. Together, Ensweiler and DeSantis take the swishiness right up to the edge, winking at us the whole time.

As Swedish bombshell Ulla, Jessica Skerritt has the body, the voice, and the moves to captivate not just Max and Leo but the audience as well. Skerritt’s monologue describing Ulla’s morning routine – starting with warm-up exercises at six and culminating in “sex at eleven” – is a priceless send-up of the dumb blonde. When she lets loose in her solo number, “When You’ve Got It, Flaunt It,” it’s clear Skerritt has the musical chops to match her physical appeal.

In the end, though, the main, if unseen, star of The Producers is Brooks. His unique blend of zaniness, wit, vulgarity, and shamelessness is an American treasure, one to be savored wherever and whenever it’s on view.

If you go: The Producers, Village Theatre, through July 1 (Issaquah), July 6-29 (Everett). Tickets starting at $43 (Issaquah), $38(Everett) by calling the box office (Issaquah: 425-392-2202 or 866-688-8049; Everett: 425-257-8600 or 888-257-3722) or online at www.villagetheatre.org


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