[Click any photo to enlarge. All photos by Michael Pittman]
By DAVID DOW BENTLEY III
Old timers will remember early television’s Ed Sullivan and his long-running variety program, “Toast of the Town,” which was eventually renamed after the legendary host himself. Certainly if Mr. Sullivan had been in the audience for last weekend’s opening of the Stage Right Players’ new production of THE PRODUCERS, he would likely have described it with his pet phrase, “A really big show!” Based on the Mel Brooks comedy film of the same name, this edition of the subsequent Broadway musical version (music and lyrics by Mr. Brooks, with a book by Mr. Brooks & Thomas Meehan) is directed here on a grand scale by Manny Cafeo. That grand scale was immediately apparent with the dazzling first number, “Opening Night,” which really did seem to explode across the stage as the glamorously dressed opening night audience (elegant costumes from designer, Katie Kelly) exit the Broadway theater where they have just attended the premier of Funny Boy. There’s excitement in the air as the vocally talented ensemble (musical director, Ana Guirola-Ladd, vocal coach, Layne Roberts) delivers this sensational opener with all the thrilling Theater District movement designed by choreographer, Dinah Mahlman. (Dancing group of “Usherettes” and chorus girls are notable for bringing pizazz to many numbers.) Adding to the splendid Broadway scene is Denise DeBold’s colorful set design, enhanced by the work of Master Carpenter, Dennis O’Connor and the scenic artistry of Deanie Harmon & Connie Bradon. But in an ironic twist, the buzzing excitement of this opening night crowd derives from the fact that the audience hated the show it had just seen. The critics felt the same, and I personally loved the line, “The reviews come out a lot faster when the critics leave at intermission.” It seems that Funny Boy is not destined to be the success that made Barbra Streisand a star in Funny Girl.
Enter the producer, one Max Bialystock, (a scene-commanding and very hard-working Jeffrey L. Baldwin). Max has put his theatrical reputation on the line with this critically savaged flop. Desperately in need of help as financial ruin looms, he enlists the aid of a timid young accountant named Leo Bloom (Timothy Eggert). Leo has an uproarious panic attack if anyone touches the little blue blanket he has clutched since childhood. Together they concoct a scheme to bilk the investors in Bialystock’s next Broadway show by over-selling shares in a production that they seek to make so deliberately awful that it will be certain to close on opening night, thus leaving them with a fortune.
They set about finding the worst play (Springtime for Hitler) by the worst playwright (Katt Gilcrease as Franz Liebkind), and choosing the most incompetent director (Clinton Jeter as Roger DeBris). If that sounds like a prescription for theatrical mayhem, you bet your life. Wait until you see the hilarious parade of little gray-haired old ladies Bialystock seduces individually to gain their financial investment in the show. It’s all in good fun, but be warned these raunchy old gals have nicknames that sound like they were plucked from porn films (I.E. “Lick-me Bite-me,” and “Kiss-me Feel-me). Adding to the hilarity is Jeter’s performance as the very-gay director, DeBris, not to mention the director’s ultra-flamboyant houseboy, Carmen Ghia (Ryan Rodriquez). Their song, “Keep it Gay,” suggests there hasn’t been this much prancing around since the Kentucky Derby.
[Photos by Michael Pittman]
Punctuating all this nonsense is a collection of assorted songs, some better than others, and always enhanced when the fine cast ensemble joins in. Tunes like, “The King of Broadway,” “We Can Do It,” and “I Wanna Be a Producer,” keep Act One rolling along. There’s delicious nonsense when Gilcrease delivers the lively, ”Der Guten Tag Hop Clop,” and before the act is over we meet Bialystock’s newly chosen office secretary/receptionist, a slender, sexy and long-legged Swedish blonde bombshell named Ulla (Sara Preisler). When Miss Preisler sings, “When You Got It, Flaunt It,” she really does! She’s so hot, the audience needs the intermission to cool off.
Act Two has plenty more singing, and dancing, but as the production approaches close to three hours in length, one becomes aware that the piece is really much too long to sustain the nonsense at its core. Songs like, “That Face,” seem over-extended, much too loud, and really unnecessary. The volume issue relates to the use of a recorded soundtrack rather than a pit orchestra. Often the volume of that track, although very well synchronized with the cast, was just so loud that lyrics were sometimes lost in the mix. And speaking of loud, we are reminded that comedy is often considered the most difficult of the dramatic arts. It is worth remembering that LOUD does not necessarily equal FUNNY. There are moments in this production when the comic approach is too heavy handed, when more subtlety would bring greater focus to the wit of the script. All that being said, this is a joyful and hardworking cast of 30, with an equally dedicated Production Crew supporting them. To borrow a phrase from the contemporary banking world, this show is “too big to fail.”
THE PRODUCERS continues through February 28th with Friday & Saturday performances at 8 p.m. and Sunday matinees at 2 p.m., all at the beautiful Crighton Theatre, 234 N. Main St. in Conroe, Texas. For tickets ($15-$20) and information, call 936-441-7469 or visit the website at www.stage-right.org
[NOTE: Come early to enjoy the screening of numerous video clips from the many films of Mel Brooks.]