Mel Brooks’ The Producers has arrived at Cabrillo Music Theatre with Michael Kostroff, Larry Raben, David Engel, and Sarah Cornell recreating the roles which won them raves two years ago at Musical Theatre West, and despite some flimsy-looking bus-and-truck sets this time around, the quartet’s sensational performances and those of an all-around terrific supporting cast make for a highly entertaining laugh-and-songfest.

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 once again out-and-out brilliant as the worst Broadway producer ever and the nebbishy accountant who accidentally gives him the most inspired 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!)

Also returning from MTW 2009 are director Steven Glaudini, bringing imagination and pizzazz to the project, and choreographer Matthew Vargo, the pair taking as their inspiration the show’s Tony-winning original director/choreographer Susan Stroman.

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 by Glaudini and Vargo. 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 Fred Kavli Theatre 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 sung straight-faced by Nick Lorenzini in his soaring tenor: “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 tour de force solo 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 in to boot. Kostroff plays Max with so much smarm (and rightly so) that when he’s atop the old lady known only as “Hold Me-Touch Me” (Farley Cadena, milking every second of her stage time and making the part inimitably her own), it’s a toss-up who has more right to say “Ick!”

A fabulous 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 plays 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 Engel once again has a field day with Roger DeBris, a character whose twenty minutes on stage are rich in comedy and gay schtick. 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 nail another classic Producers moment 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, a role she has brought to (larger than) life on Broadway, in Toronto, and of course in Long Beach, the latter appearance earning her a 2009 Ovation Award. Cornell’s “When You’ve Got It, Flaunt It” allows the statuesque beauty to indeed flaunt her triple-threat talents—to well-deserved cheers.

Newcomer Chris Caldwell Eckert brings an outrageously spastic flamboyance to Carmen Ghia, DeBris’ common-law spouse, earning applause for each of his scene-stealing scenes. The versatile James W. Gruessing, Jr. is a hoot as 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 Cadena and Lorenzini, The Producers’ mostly very young ensemble includes Whitney Ackerman, Joseph Almohaya, Kathryn Burns, Nicola Harrington, Keenon Hooks, Natasha Hugger, Elizabeth Johnson, Lindsay McDonald, Chris Pow, Kelly Roberts, Veronica Stevens, Timothy Stokel, Jennifer Stratton, and Tonya Washington. Carly Bracco and Carolyn Freeman Champ provide additional vocal support from the pit.

Darryl Archibald proves himself yet again one of our finest musical directors, conducting the couldn’t-be-better sixteen-piece Cabrillo orchestra. Costumes (supervised by Christine Gibson) are William Ivey Long’s 2001 Tony winners, skillfully lit by Christina L. Munich. Jonathan Burke’s sound design provides a perfect mix of orchestra and voices. Mark Travis Hoyer deserves kudos for his hair and makeup design.

Unfortunately, Robin Wagner’s Tony-winning scenic designs, so spiffy-looking at MTW, appear here to be those used at the tail end of the show’s Broadway National Tour, with an itinerary of one-nighters requiring sets that are as easy to assemble as they are to strike. Every backdrop on the Kavli stage is a painted scrim, the slightest onstage movement causing a ripple. A scaled-down Bialystock office gets only a few curtains added post-intermission, instead of a full repaint. Max’s jail cell is two small modular units pushed together and a courtroom set isn’t much more elaborate. Simply put, Broadway caliber performances like those onstage at the Kavli deserve better than this.

Allie Roy is production stage manager, Michelle Stann and Jessie Standifer assistant stage managers, Mark Bodine technical director, and Char Brister crew captain.

With Kostroff, Raben, Engel, and Cornell once again doing award-caliber work, and a supporting cast of triple-threats, The Producers provides an abundance of applause-worthy production numbers and laughs galore. Though the sets prove a disappointment, in all other respects, The Producers makes for one terrific show.

Cabrillo Music Theatre, Kavli Theatre, Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza, 2100 Thousand Oaks Boulevard, Thousand Oaks.
–Steven Stanley
April 8, 2011
Photos: Ed Krieger

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