The Norris Center For The Arts undertakes its most ambitious musical to date, a near Broadway-scale production of Mel Brooks’ multiple Tony-winning The Producers which, despite some technical elements still rough around the edges on opening night, makes for a bona fide crowd-pleaser sparked by one standout performance after another.

T_P_B037copy Norris favorite Nick Santa Maria is Broadway flop-master Max Bialystock and Marc Ginsburg is Leo Bloom, the nebbishy accountant who accidentally gives Max 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, after which the duo can 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 over $15,000,000 in today’s moola!)

Fans of the Broadway musical—with songs by Brooks and book by Brooks and Thomas Meehan—will delight in its many show-stopping production numbers choreographed on Broadway by five-time Tony winner Susan Stroman, whose direction and choreography is recreated on the Norris Theatre stage by Stroman whiz Matthew J. Vargo. Among those highlights:

•The pizzazzy “Opening Night,” featuring 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,” which has Leo’s Kafkaesque accounting office transformed in his imagination into a Broadway stage by a bevy of statuesque, leggy showgirls

•“Keep It Gay,” starring 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), who keep it gay times six.


•“Along Came Bialy,” which fills the Norris with a dozen and a half of the oldest ladies ever seen dancing, marking time with their walkers, and proving you’re never too elderly to kick up your Dr. Scholl heels

•“Springtime For Hitler,” lovingly recreated from the original ’67 flick with bevy of Miss Germanys adorned with giant pretzels, beer steins and sausages atop their heads, goose-stepping Nazis, a Busby Berkley-style dancing swastika … and these unforgettable lyrics sung straight-faced by a perhaps not-so-straight German soldier/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, which spotlights a bevy of singing/dancing convicts, half of them shapely, scantily-clad female inmates.

T_P_B159copy Director-choreographer Vargo’s lengthy association with Broadway legend Stroman makes him the ideal choice to recreate her original Broadway vision and—remarkably—to do so with only a few short weeks of rehearsal and tech, a tiny fraction of the months and months that go into putting together a musical on Broadway or on tour.

Though this rushed prep was doubtless responsible for those opening night set and sound glitches, performances are pretty much flawless all around, and will only get richer over the show’s three-weekend run.

T_P_B121copy Three-time Best Actor Scenie winner Santa Maria, whose four-year Broadway/Touring connection with The Producers includes playing just about every male role in the show, gives us a scene-stealing Max Bialystock who more than holds his own against his illustrious predecessors Zero Mostel and Nathan Lane. It’s almost worth the price of admission simply to see Santa Maria perform the Max’s tour-de-force “Betrayed,” in which the one-time self-described “King Of Broadway” 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.

Ginsburg’s first-rate acting chops reveal considerable depth beneath Leo’s comedic shtick (remember Gene Wilder/Matthew Broderick’s “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!”), his onstage chemistry with Santa Maria is palpable—and hilarious—and his romance with Swedish secretary Ulla couldn’t be sweeter or more believable.

T_P_B257copy Ken Prescott makes for a majestical Roger DeBris, a character whose twenty minutes on stage are rich in comedy and camp. (Appearing first in a rhinestone-studded evening gown and hat, Roger proclaims “I’m supposed to be the Grand Duchess Anastasia, but I think I look more like the Chrysler Building.”) Later on, Prescott earns laughter and cheers as a singing Hitler who almost makes Liberace seem butch.

I’ve never seen a better Carmen Ghia than Jon M. Wailin, who lets so much inner fabulousness burst forth that you may find yourself wishing for a Producers spinoff with DeBris’ common-law spouse as the star.

T_P_A274copy Elaine Hayhurst is va-va-voomalicious as Swedish bombshell/secretary Ulla Inga Hansen Benson Yansen Tallen Hallen Svaden Swanson, her delicious “When You’ve Got It, Flaunt It” one of the evenings show-stoppingest numbers.

Norris Center Artistic Director James W. Gruessing completes the cast of principals with Teutonic oomph and abundant showmanship as Franz Liebkind, the pigeon-loving author of the neo-Nazi “masterpiece” Springtime For Hitler, A Gay Romp With Adolf And Eva At Berchtegaden, whether singing and dancing “Der Guten Tag Hop-Clop” or belting out “Have You Ever Heard The German Band?”

T_P_A329copy 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. Executing as many as fourteen roles each on the Norris stage are The Producers’ tiptop ensemble of triple-threats: Farley Cadena (a hoot and a half as Hold Me, Touch Me, the friskiest of Max’s elderly benefactresses), Gretchen Dawson, Ben Gibson (who solos “Springtime For Hitler” quite gorgeously), Darren Giglio (Bryan, Judge), Brandon Gomez (O’Houlihan), Cori Cable Kidder (Usherette), Adam Mantell (O’Reiley), Morgan McGeehan, Anne Montavon, Kevin Paul (Mr. Marks, Jason Green), Laurel Petti (Usherette, Lick Me, Bite Me), Libby Snyder, Brandon Stanford (Donald Dinsmore, O’Rourke), Jennifer Strattan (Shirley, Kiss Me, Feel Me), Amy Trgovac, and dance captain Matt Wiley (Scott). Pit singers Kendall Giglio and Rebecca Morris sweeten the vocal mix.

Conducting the production’s Broadway-scale orchestra is musical director extraordinaire Daniel Thomas. Gruessing’s set redesign gives this production a professional look (despite opening night snafus) as do backdrops and props from The Producers’ National Tour and a grand total of 190 costumes provided by The Theatre Co, Upland, CA and supervised by Christina Bayer, all of the above lit with her accustomed flair by Christina L. Munich. Jay Lee’s sound design is mostly effective at amplifying dialog and mixing vocals and instrumentals. Principal wigs by Anthony Gagliardi and ensemble wigs by Cassie Steege-Russek are both first-class.

The Producers is overseen by Gruessing. Chris Warren Murry is stage manager and Greg Forbess technical director.

A production as epic as The Producers proves the best possible way to celebrate the 30th Anniversary of the opening of the Norris, and to introduce a season which features the return of last year’s smash White Christmas, the four-actor brilliance of The Thirty-Nine Steps, and the Broadway musical buff pleaser The Drowsy Chaperone. In the meantime, The Producers offers South Bay audiences a scrumptious treat, and those further afield a terrific reason to head down Palos Verdes way.

Norris Center for the Performing Arts, 27570 Norris Center Drive, Rolling Hills Estates.

–Steven Stanley
September 20, 2013
Photos: Ed Krieger

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