‘The Producers’ remains marvelously over-the-top funny
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You can say this for the Paramount Theatre’s staging of Mel Brooks’ “The Producers:” Director Jim Corti has fully committed to the show’s unapologetic ridicule of every race, creed, color, religion and sexual orientation. What we have here is a stupendous production of a show that by all rights should not be as funny as it was when it premiered in Chicago in 2001.
Inspired by the 1967 movie of the same name, “The Producers” follows Max Bialystock (Blake Hammond) and Leo Bloom (Jake Morrissy) as they hatch a cockamamie scam to make millions by producing a sure-fire Broadway flop. Alas, said flop, titled “Springtime for Hitler” turns out to be a blockbuster.
Comedy, according to Mark Twain’s famous adage, is tragedy plus time. The “time” part of that formula isn’t what it was when “The Producers” won a record 12 Tony Awards. Back then, Nazis were more of a historical memory than a regular part of the news. The cultural shift makes “The Producers” a much larger risk than it was nearly 20 years ago.
When: Through March 17
Where: Paramount Aurora, 23 E. Galena Blvd., Aurora
Corti’s response to that risk is to bet the house and dial up the offensiveness to stratospheric heights. He delivers the most extra production of “The Producers” the show has seen hereabouts.
Let’s go to the infamous “Springtime for Hitler” scene, shall we? Think: The glittery spectacle of finale of “A Chorus Line,” only the cast is: wearing Nazi uniforms that look like they were designed by Frederick’s of Hollywood and dropping weapons of mass destruction into the orchestra pit, while a massive backdrop explodes into a fiery mushroom crowd behind them as a two-story tall bedazzled swastika spins like a disco ball overhead. It. Is. Bonkers.
Which brings us to Hitler himself (Sean Blake). Blake is serving Hitler as Liza-at-the-Palace with a side of Anne Hathaway tearing up as she tells the Oscar audience that, yes, dreams really do come true. Should you laugh? Should you walk out? Do these people have no shame? Such are the questions that arise with this production.
If you know “The Producers,” you know the show (music and lyrics by Brooks, book by Brooks and Thomas Meehan) is an equal-opportunity offender. Jokes about the Master Race and swastika-wearing pigeons don’t offend you? How about an entire song about sleeping with (not how the lyrics put it) rich old ladies who write checks, ahem, in gratitude? Not even the Swedish are spared.
Corti’s cast is the best “The Producers” has seen since locally since Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick created the on-stage roles of Max and Leo. (And yes, I have seen every iteration of the show that’s been professionally produced here since then.)
When Sean Blake is not stealing the show, Blake Hammond is. As Max, Hammond is a larger-than-life powerhouse, barreling through the production with a belt that never flags and more energy than an econo-jar of amphetamines. He is, as the kids say, the bomb.
Morrissy’s Bloom is right there with him. What with his neurosis and his security blanket and his whining, Leo can get shrill and stupid in a hurry. Morrissy avoids both. He’s endearing, even when Bloom is uber-exasperating.
Which brings us to Elyse Collier as Ulla, the bombshell whose silhouette alone turns men into babbling nincompoops. Collier’s Ulla is what would result if Marilyn Monroe, Ginger Rogers and Britt Eklund had a baby. Supporting standouts also include Adam Fane’s sinewy, sibilant Carmen Ghia, who calls to mind Valentina (of RuPaul “Allstars” fame) in all her French-Vanilla Fantasy glory.
Choreographer Brenda Didier puts her own stamp on the show. She’s boldly dispensed with original’s iconic chorus line of walker-pushing grannies, a signature number that audiences have come to expect. Didier instead stages the uber-randy “Along Came Bialy” as an ode to Esther Williams’ underwater extravaganzas, complete with a crew of muscle-bound lifeguards packed into extremely small bathing trunks.
Set designer William Boles hews to tradition, crafting an eye-popping cityscape would not be out of place in Times Square. His attention to detail is laudable: There are no less than 17 pigeons perched among the marquees. Costume designer Jordan Ross is clearly having a ball. Watch for the parade of giant pretzels, black eagles and beer steins brought to a head by MVP chorine Sawyer Smith in a teeny-weeny silver leotard and giant headdress.
When Max reads the reviews of “Springtime for Hitler,” he might as well be reading the reviews of “The Producers.” (“A satirical masterpiece!” “It’ll run for 20 years!” “Guaranteed to offend!”)
Max might wind up in the hoosegow. Audiences will wind up in stitches.
Catey Sullivan is a local freelance writer.