There is always excitement when a Broadway megahit like Mel Brooks’ The Producers makes its regional theater debut, and when the regional premiere is as all-around sensational as the one currently being staged by Musical Theatre West, it is a theatrical event of major proportions.


Having seen both the First National Tour and the film adaptation featuring most of the original Broadway cast, I am happy to announce that MTW’s production tops them both.  Even those who’ve seen and enjoyed Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick, or Jason Alexander and Martin Short in the titular roles of Max Bialystock and Leo Bloom owe it to themselves to see Michael Kostroff and Larry Raben hit these roles out of the ballpark.
Kostroff (the Max understudy in the First National Tour) and Raben (who originated Leo in the Las Vegas production and also played it on Broadway) are out-and-out brilliant as the worst Broadway producer ever and the nebbishy accountant who accidentally gives him the most brilliant scheme of his theatrical career—to produce the worst show in Broadway history, one so stinkingly bad that it is sure to close even before the final curtain, and then escape to Rio with every last cent of the $2,000,000 invested in the flop. (As the show is set in 1959, that’s $14,000,000 in today’s moola!)
Since Tony-winner Susan Stroman’s Broadway choreography was definitive, that’s what you’ll be seeing in Long Beach (flawlessly recreated by Producers vet Matthew J. Vargo). Stroman also won the Tony for directing the Broadway original, and what director Steven Glaudini does so brilliantly here (in addition to his accustomed imagination and verve) is fine-tune the lead performances, bringing back to Max the sleaze factor missing in Nathan Lane and making Leo the nerd to outnerd all others who’ve preceded him in the role.  Though in no ways imitating their performances, Kostroff and Raben recall the unforgettable work of Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder in the 1968 non-musical film original.
Fans of The Producers (either the Broadway musical or the movie adaptation) will delight in seeing every one of the great Brooks/Stroman moments, songs, and production numbers recreated here. Among the most show-stopping:

•The pizzazzy “Opening Night,” with bejeweled and begowned New York theatergoers lamenting yet another Bialystock dud (Funny Boy, a decidedly unadvised musical version of Hamlet)

•“I Wanna Be A Producer,” with Leo’s Kafkaesque accounting office transformed (in his imagination) into a Broadway stage by a bevy of statuesque, leggy showgirls

•“Keep It Gay,” featuring the queeniest gaggle of Broadway luminaries ever (director Roger DeBris, his “common-law assistant” Carmen Ghia, set designer Bryan, costume designer Kevin, choreographer Scott, and butch lesbian Shirley Markowitz), making it gayer than it’s ever been at MTW (even more so than in La Cage Aux Folles)

•“Along Came Bialy,” which fills the Carpenter Center with a couple dozen of the oldest ladies ever seen dancing (and marking time with their walkers)—on any stage

•“Springtime For Hitler,” the sole number from the original ’67 flick, its bevy of Miss Germanys adorned with giant pretzels, beer steins and sausages atop their heads, goose-stepping Nazis, and a Busby Berkley-style dancing swastika … and these unforgettable lyrics:  “It’s springtime for Hitler and Germany, winter for Poland and France. We’re marching to a faster pace.  Look out, here comes the master race.”

•“Prisoners Of Love,” the grand finale with its singing/dancing convicts, half of them shapely, scantily-clad female inmates.

Kostroff, quite possibly the definitive Max Bialystock, gets the show’s individual tour de force moment in “Betrayed,” in which he synopsizes the entire plot of the first two plus hours of the show in barely 4½ minutes, with excerpts from nearly every song and bits of dialog thrown it to boot. Kostroff plays Max hilariously, and so smarmily that when he’s atop the old lady known only as “Hold Me-Touch Me” (a terrific, unrecognizable Tracy Lore), it’s a toss-up who has more right to say “Ick!”

Raben gets some of the best Gene Wilder lines (remember “I’m wet! I’m wet! I’m hysterical and I’m wet! I’m in pain! And I’m wet! And I’m still hysterical!”) and he milks them for all they’re worth.  Raben’s boyish cuteness makes his romance with Swedish secretary Ulla (more about her later) absolutely believable, and both he and Kostroff have marvelous musical theater singing voices.

Six-time Ovation-winning David Engel has a field day with Roger DeBris, a character whose twenty minutes on stage are so rich in comedy and gay schtick that don’t be surprised if Engel ends up with a lucky seven. Appearing first in a rhinestone-studded evening gown and hat that lead Roger to proclaim “I’m supposed to be the Grand Duchess Anastasia, but I think I look more like the Chrysler Building,” Engel later gets to steal yet another scene as a singing Hitler who almost makes Liberace seem butch.

At a stunningly gorgeous and glamorous 6’2”, Sarah Cornell was born to play Swedish bombshell/secretary Ulla Inga Hansen Benson Yansen Tallen Hallen Svaden Swanson, and in fact she has done so both on Broadway and in Toronto.  Her “When You’ve Got It, Flaunt It” allows Cornell to indeed flaunt her triple-threat talents—to well-deserved cheers.

Carmen Ghia is a tough role to nail. When played condescendingly (as it was at the Pantages in 2001), it becomes the most offensive of gay stereotypes. Here, Michael Paternostro (whose gifts as one of our best musical directors make him at least a quadruple threat) plays Carmen with such joie de vivre and affection that his every swish and leap and twirl is an absolute delight.  What a difference an actor can make!

Nick Santa Maria (recently Pseudolus in A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum) is a fabulous Franz Liebkind, the pigeon-loving author of the neo-Nazi disaster slash masterpiece Springtime For Hitler, A Gay Romp With Adolf And Eva At Berchtegaden, and gets to sing and dance “Der Guten Tag Hop-Clop” and belt out “Have You Ever Heard The German Band?”

The Producers is known for having some of the busiest and most complicated “tracks” (i.e. the multiple roles that each ensemble member plays) in any musical, ever. Kostroff played twelve different roles in his National Tour track, and here the stellar ensemble has equally complex assignments, which they do to perfection. In addition to Lore, The Producers’ sensational ensemble (many of whom are accustomed to playing leads) includes Jeremy Bernard (whose gorgeous tenor is featured in “Spingtime For Hitler”), Paul David Bryant, Christina Lynn Gaspar, Jeffrey Landman, Alyssa Marie, Katherine McLaughlin, John Racca, Mark C. Reis, Anna Schnaitter, Rachel Scott, Daniel Smith, Libby Snyder, Jennifer Strattan, dance captain Karl Warden, and Anne Winfree.

Musical director Daniel Thomas does his usual bang-up job conducting the MTW orchestra, and design-wise The Producers is one of MTW’s best looking shows ever.  Costumes are William Ivey Long’s 2001 Tony winners, and the sets are Robin Wagner’s Tony-winning designs as well, beautifully lit here by Darrell Clark.  Julie Ferrin’s sound design provides a perfect mix of orchestra and voices.  

Musical Theatre West will not need this or any other rave review to sell out performance after performance. The Producers is a built-in box office bonanza.  That being said, this production is certain to get raves, and deserved ones at that.  This surefire blockbuster is the best beginning imaginable for this year’s MTW lineup of musicals.  The Producers starts off 2009 with a BANG!

Musical Theatre West, Richard and Karen Carpenter Performing Arts Center, 6200 Atherton St., Long Beach.

–Steven Stanley
January 31, 2009
                                                                   Photos: Ambrose Martin

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