By Jocelyn McMahon
FOR ANYONE EXPECTING a straightforward stereotypical family-friendly rom-com to bring the kids to, you’ve probably got the wrong show.
If you’re looking for an absurd atypical satiric musical masterpiece full of the kind of witty crude offensive humor that will surely make your cheeks hurt from laughing for over two hours straight, then The Producers is a perfect fit. Mel Brooks’ brilliant musical, that scored 12 Tony Awards in 2001, is nothing short of a satirical masterpiece. I mean where else can you find characters listed as “Lick Me-Bite Me” and “Hold Me-Touch Me”? (I’ll explain later.)
For anyone who is a Producers newbie, including myself, who has never seen the musical, the 1967 original film or the 2005 film adaptation of the musical, here’s the story in a nut-shell:
A once glorified producer, Max Bialystock, is down on his luck; forced to exchange sexual favors with an array of aristocratic old ladies (here’s where you get to meet characters Lick Me-Bite Me and Hold Me-Touch Me) in exchange for financial backing for his plays, he just can’t seem to get it right and ends up producing one flop after another. One day Max’s new accountant Leo Bloom comes in, and after finally agreeing to overlook a discrepancy in Max’s finances, he jokes that one could actually make more money with a flop than a successful play. And here’s where they hatch a plan:
Step 1: Find the worst play ever written. Step 2: Hire the worst director in town. Step 3: Raise two million dollars; one for each of them. Step 4: Hire the worst actors in New York and open on Broadway. Step 5: Close on Broadway after one performance, take the two million and head to Rio.
They decide on the most offensive script: Springtime for Hitler, written by ex-Nazi Franz Liebkind. After getting him to sign over the rights, and getting/receiving a couple swastikas for the road, they visit the home of the worst director, but possibly most flamboyant man in town, Roger De Bris and his partner Carmen Ghia who decide to get on board with the play. With a few more checks from the likes of Lick Me-Bite Me and Hold Me-Touch Me, and a newfound assistant secretary for the office, Swedish hottie Ulla, Leo and Max are on their way to producing what they expect to be the worst musical in history.
Cabrillo Stage’s production of The Producers offers humor and spectacle at a professional grade level. It is everything Cabrillo does right: elaborate costumes for the entire cast, large choral tap-dancing masterpieces, great rolling sets, utilization of the insane fly-system, exceptional orchestration, caricatures of Nazis, gay-jokes galore and, above all, satire.
Directed and choreographed by Lee Ann Payne The Producers has an unbelievably solid cast with both its leads and supporting cast carrying the weight of the show effortlessly. Gary Schoenfeld as Leo Bloom and Chris Reber as Max Bialystock are a match made in heaven as the title characters of the show.
Shoenfeld’s Leo is a little bundle of hysteria; a goofy spaz with a brilliant voice and an acute knack for movement based humor that never ceases to amaze. We see Leo shed his layers as he transforms from an introverted anxiety-ridden accountant in the beginning to a confident showman by the end, although it’s hard to pinpoint when this transformation occurs as Shoenfeld’s changes are so subtle. Reber’s Max is about as smooth talking New Yorker as an actor can get, with swift comedic timing he keeps the audience on their toes with one one-liner after another. He appears to have infinite energy which he flaunts in his prize song “Betrayed” towards the end of the show in which he summarizes the entire show while never stopping to take a breath.
Jessica Whittemore (Ulla) is the definition of a triple threat. Although her Swedish accent is less than convincing in a sort of Cali-girl/Scandanavian-esque way, it kind of fits with the show’s comedic absurdity. And as Ulla says “If you got it, flaunt it.” She definitely has something to flaunt; with Rockettes-style high kicks and an amazingly strong mezzo-soprano belt that echoes out clear as crystal. At one point she does a back-walkover and lands in splits while singing.
Jordan Pierini adopts the spitey manic character Franz Liebkind right off the bat in his debut “In Old Bavaria.” With a background of pet pigeons, Pierini hops and kicks about the stage in a Bavarian-folk manner while crooning out his fond memories of Nazi-ridden Germany in an adorable, horrifying way.
Roger De Bris and his partner Carmen Ghia may be the gayest roles ever written; Walter Mayes is the flamboyant cross-dressing director who dreams of winning a Tony, and David Mister is hilarious in every choice he makes from his sassy-pants walk to his over-enunciated lisp. The number “Keep It Gay,” in which they try to convince Max and Leo of replacing Springtime for Hitler with something more light-hearted, was definitely a highlight of the show.
One of the most impressive dance numbers was “Little Old Lady Land” in which the entire chorus enters as dancing grannies with walkers used for extensive rhythmic cues, and then jumps and leaps over them with gymnastic skill.
The title number of the show within the show, “Springtime for Hitler,” is a masterpiece, a spoof with a solo tenor repeating “Springtime for Hitler, Springtime for Hitler…” while the chorus girls begin to enter as scantily clad pretzels and sausages while other dancers enter in Lederhosen. By the time the ensemble formed itself into a swastika the audience was practically falling out of their seats laughing. It even received a standing ovation making that the first one, but certainly not the last of the night.
As Lee Ann Payne mentions in the director’s notes, “The power of Brooks’ silly brand of comedy is that he is able to show that absurdity and foolishness can totally abolish wickedness.” A product of fantastic writing, great direction, and a delightful and amazingly talented cast, Cabrillo’s The Producers is an absolute success.
Photo by Steve DeBartolomeo