They said it couldn’t be done. They said that there was no way a non-Equity company of performers could possibly stage Mel Brook’s multimillion-dollar Broadway smash The Producers on a tiny stage with a reduced company of actors and a fraction of the original production’s budget.

Amazingly, the Maverick Theater’s production of The Producers maintains much of the entertainment value of its big stage, big budget predecessor, thanks in large measure to Brian Newell’s able direction, two tour-de-force lead performances, and Brooks’ absolutely hilarious book.

Admittedly, this is not quite the same The Producers that audiences have seen on Broadway, on tour, or in major regional productions. You won’t see Susan Stroman’s Tony-winning choreography, and the original’s stunningly staged production numbers have been greatly scaled down. You won’t see the original Tony-winning costumes and sets that major regional productions have been able to feature.

What you will see is two fabulous leading men, Rick Franklin as Max Bialystock and Shaun-Michael McNamara as Leo Bloom, giving the Broadway originals a run for their money.

Max and Leo are (for those who may not have seen either the original film, its Broadway adaptation, or that adaptation’s film adaptation) 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!)

Even reduced in size and scope, The Producers’ many production numbers (nicely choreographed here by Curtis Jerome) are still a lot of fun. There’s 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 accounting office transformed in his imagination into a Broadway stage with (mostly) beautiful showgirls taking the place of his overworked, underpaid fellow accountants; “Keep It Gay,” featuring the queeniest gaggle of Broadway luminaries ever—director Roger DeBris looking fabulous in his spangled evening gown and Joan Crawford wig, along with his “common-law assistant” Carmen Ghia, set designer Bryan, costume designer Kevin, choreographer Scott, and butch lesbian Shirley Markowitz; “Along Came Bialy,” which features eight or nine of the oldest ladies you’ve ever seen dancing (and marking time with their walkers); “Springtime For Hitler,” the sole number from the original 1967 flick, its bevy of Miss Germanys adorned with giant pretzels, beer steins and sausages atop their heads, goose-stepping Nazis, 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”; and “Prisoners Of Love,” the grand finale with its singing/dancing convicts.

Franklin’s performance as Max is the closest I’ve seen to Zero Mostel’s ’67 original, and that’s saying a lot. McNamara nails Leo’s nebbishness from his very first appearance, with the funniest “what do I do with my hands” schtick I’ve ever seen. Both actors are terrific singers and terrific comedians.

In supporting roles, Glenn Freeze is a hilarious Roger Debris, Kalinda Gray a delightfully adorable (and petite this time around) Ulla, Marcus S. Daniel an amusingly flamboyant Carmen Ghia, and Veda Franklin a very funny Hold Me-Touch Me. (Max gives each of the little old ladies he’s been bilking/schtupping a special nickname.) Finally, though not the ubermasculine Franz Liebkind we may be accustomed to seeing, David Chorley is so out-and-out outrageous in the role that his is the show’s standout featured performance.

Music director/keyboardist Benjamin Sagan conducts the show’s excellent seven-piece orchestra, big for this scale production. Costumes by choreographer Jerome are imaginatively created on a smidgen of the Broadway original’s budget. Producer/director Newell’s lighting design is first-rate, and his sound design amplifies voices and mixes them with the orchestra to perfection. The production’s budgetary limits are most evident in Newell’s set design, but with its uproarious script, catchy songs, and scene-stealing performances, The Producers doesn’t need to be about spectacular sets.

The original Broadway supporting ensemble has been scaled down from fifteen to ten, the better to fit the Maverick stage. Cassandra Cade, Layla Dean, Nick McGee, Joey Nestra, Oscar Orellena, Daniel Romero, Anastacia Rose, Danielle “Billie” Stouter, Monica Wahrenbrock, and Sarah Weismer ably assume somewhere between a half-dozen and a dozen roles each, which means a lot of costume and wig changes. They are an enthusiastic and talented bunch, though an older ensemble (particularly the males) would give the production a more professional look.

All in all, the Maverick Theater’s intimate staging of The Producers does what it sets out to do—to entertain. I laughed and laughed, and was surrounded by others doing the same. What better way is there to spend an afternoon or evening?

The Maverick Theater, 110 E. Walnut, Fullerton. Through July 31. Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00. Saturdays at 3:00 starting June 19. Reservations: 714 526-7070

–Steven Stanley
June 26, 2010

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