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An excess of show-biz frenzy in Mercury Theater’s ‘Producers’

Allison Sill (from left), Bill Larkin and Matt Crowle in the Mercury Theater Chicago production of "The Producers." (Photo: Brett A. Beiner)

It’s difficult to believe it has been 15 years since “The Producers,” Mel Brooks’ musical version of his hit film, arrived for a tryout at Chicago’s Cadillac Palace Theatre before flying off to Broadway and picking up a record 12 Tony Awards, including those for best director and choreographer for the ever-ingenious Susan Stroman.

A giddy, wildly politically incorrect Borscht Belt-style satire of all things social, sexual, financial, historical and theatrical (or, as Brooks himself has dubbed it, “an equal opportunity offender”), it poked relentless fun at gay life, the tax code and Broadway itself, and, above all, it saved its most notorious number for Adolf Hitler — very risky business, even if he was portrayed in the most grotesque and moronic way possible.

Now, director L. Walter Stearns has staged a revival of the musical in the intimate confines of Mercury Theater Chicago. There is one major reason to catch this production, and his name is Matthew Crowle. In the role of Leo Bloom, the hapless, quintessentially nerdy accountant who discovers a whole new life after revealing an intriguing tax loophole to Max Bialystock (Bill Larkin), the veteran, down-on-his-luck Broadway producer, Crowle uses his brilliant comedic skills to perfection.

The cast of Mel Brooks' musical, "The Producers," now at Mercury Theater Chicago. (Photo: Brett A. Beiner)

The cast of Mel Brooks’ musical, “The Producers,” now at Mercury Theater Chicago. (Photo: Brett A. Beiner)

Somewhat recommended
When: Through June 26
Where: Mercury Theater
Chicago, 3745 N. Southport
Tickets: $30 – $65
Info: (773) 325-1700;
www. MercuryTheaterChicago.com
Run time: 2 hours
and 40 minutes with one intermission

In fact, forget about the role’s originator, Matthew Broderick. Crowle, a wiry actor and superb dancer — whose face performs a choreography all its own — has grabbed hold of Leo and made magic of every second of his stage time. And he is wonderfully paired with the easily enchanting Allison Sill as Ulla, the leggy, playfully seductive Swedish bombshell who arrives for an audition, proceeds to stay on as a secretary, and helps to turn Leo’s life around. (The usually excellent Larkin, in a grueling role, works himself into a sweat, but would be more effective if he took things down a few notches. That said, the song in which he renders a total recap of the story, complete with mobile-phone-fueled intermission, is expertly done.)

And that echoes the overall flaw in this production. For while it cannot be denied that it is propelled by high energy and enthusiasm and that there are some very winning moments, the show’s relentless campiness proves more exhausting than funny in many cases. In a story that is all about excess, less would have been more. Comedy thrives on subtlety, even when, as is the case with “The Producers,” panic and high anxiety are its driving forces.

MercuryTheaterChicago, The Producers - Matt Crowle (Leo Bloom), Bill Larkin (Max Bialystock)

At the center of Brooks’ story are two men whose polar-opposite personalities turn out to generate an initially catastrophic yet finally successful bit of chemistry. When Bloom explains to Bialystock that a failure on Broadway could actually leave him with more money than a hit, the search is on for the most terrible script around, a script that will be a surefire flop, particularly if its directed and performed by an equally dreadful artistic team. For backers, Bialystock turns to the usual suspects: a gaggle of sex-crazed old ladies on walkers.

The answer to the men’s prayers seems to arrive in the form of “Springtime for Hitler,” penned by Franz Liebkind (Harter Clingman is the perfect Aryan lunatic), a Bavarian Nazi who raises pigeons on a Manhattan rooftop. Recruited to direct the project is Roger DeBris (Jason Richards), a flaming drag queen who ends up playing the Fuhrer as a fully flamboyant idiot. And the show that Bialystock and Bloom expected to close down before the end of the first act turns out to be a hit, with dire consequences. Of course Brooks ultimately gives us a happy “orange is the new green” ending.

Brigitte Ditmars’ choreography and Eugene Dizon’s musical direction (and his fine band) are first-rate. In the tireless, ever-morphing ensemble, Leah Morrow is a comic standout. Frances Maggio’s costumes are most winning. And the best part of Jeffrey D. Kmiec’s set might just be the billboard signs that capture Times Square and the Broadway theater district in the days before the place was “cleaned up.” My favorites? “More Doctors Smoke Camels” and “Delicatessen: Rat-Free Since 1939.”

But again, don’t forget Crowle. He (and his pale blue security blanket ) give an award-worthy performance that I’m very glad I didn’t miss.