A stupendous cast and a topnotch directorial/choreographic team recreating the Tony-winning work of Broadway superstar Susan Stroman have come up with an all-around splendid revival of the megasmash hit musical The Producers, once again providing proof positive that a 3-D Theatricals production is the next-best-thing to Broadway—and a heck of a lot more convenient.
And speaking of the Great White Way, Broadway vet Jay Brian Winnick stars as Broadway flop-master Max Bialystock, with recent Ovation Award winner Jeff Skowron sharing star billing as 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 Stroman and recreated on the Plummer Auditorium stage per Stroman’s notes by the fabulous Linda Love-Simmons, with wunderkind/jack-of-all-musical-trades David Lamoureux, recreating Stroman’s Tony-winning direction.
Among the most memorable Producers highlights are the following:
•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
•“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 Plummer stage with a couple dozen 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.
I’m never quite sure how much originality is allowed in a “reproduced” production, but given director Lamoureux and choreographer Love-Simmons’ track records, I’d guess that each has snuck in his or her own personal touches, all the while respecting Stroman’s hallmark, reputedly some of the most detailed direction/choreography in Broadway annals.
While other Max Bialystocks may have followed in Broadway original Nathan Lane’s sleazy-but-adorable footsteps, Winnick (Lane’s understudy in Stephen Sondheim’s The Frogs) pays homage to the first Max ever, stage-and-screen legend Zero Mostel, giving us a Max without an adorable bone in his body, and just as it did back in ’67, this approach yields one humdinger of a performance, including 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.
As for Winnick’s partner in comedy and crime, the always sensational Skowron once again proves that there’s no one more versatile on our L.A. stages than he. (How many other Leo Blooms could play the doomed Leo Frank in Parade and fill Sid Caesar’s shoes in Little Me?) Transformed for The Producers into the nerd-to-end-all-nerds, Skowron milks every comedic Leo Bloom moment (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!”) in addition to investing the role with a good deal of sweetness and poignancy where love and romance are concerned.
There is no more fabulous Roger DeBris on this planet than triple-threat extraordinaire David Engel, whose previous DeBris turns at Musical Theatre West and Cabrillo Music Theatre have honed Roger to gay-schticky perfection. 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.
Leigh Wakeford makes gayer-than-gay Carmen Ghia so irresistibly his own that one can only hope this South African transplant’s appearance in The Producers will be but the first of many Southland star turns.
I’ve never seen a more perfectly luscious Ulla Inga Hansen Benson Yansen Tallen Hallen Svaden Swanson than New York-based Huntington Beach native Hilary Michael Thompson, so irresistible in the role that she might even stand a chance of turning Roger or Carmen briefly straight. Not surprisingly, the Swedish bombshell/secretary’s “When You’ve Got It, Flaunt It” earns Thompson oodles of cheers (and a request from this reviewer not to be a stranger to the West Coast.)
Vying with Skowron for Most Versatile L.A. Musical Theater star is Norman Large, whose dramatic turns as Sunset Blvd.’s Max and Sweeney Todd himself make his comedic tour de force as Franz Liebkind, the pigeon-loving author of the neo-Nazi “masterpiece” Springtime For Hitler, A Gay Romp With Adolf And Eva At Berchtegaden, all the more noteworthy, whether singing and dancing “Der Guten Tag Hop-Clop” or belting 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. Executing as many as fourteen roles each on the Plummer Auditorium stage are The Producers’ tiptop ensemble of triple-threats, beginning with L.A. treasure Tracy Lore, taking the part of Hold-me Touch-me, the friskiest of Max’s elderly benefactresses, and making her every move, gesture, and facial expression a scene-stealer.
The rest of the Broadway-caliber (and height-blessed) ensemble is made up of dance captain Kim Arnett (Lick-me Bite-me), Danny Blaylock (Mr. Marks, Jason Green, Sergeant, Judge), Katelyn Blockinger, Chris Duir (Bryan, Donald Dinsmore, Guard), Jessica Ernest, Casey Garritano (Officer, Bailiff), Annie Hinskton, Bonnie Kovar (Misfit, Shirley, Kiss-me Feel-me), Adam Mantell (Scott), Leslie Miller, Eric Michael Parker (Officer, Trustee), Justin Matthew Segura, Caleb Shaw (Kevin, Jack Lepidus, Springtime Tenor, Foreman Of The Jury), Laura Thatcher, and Stephanie Wolfe.
Lamoureux doubles terrifically as musical director, conducting the production’s 16-piece orchestra (provided by Los Angeles Musicians Collective and featuring mom Julie and younger brother Jordan, making this a Lamoureux family affair).
The production’s record-breaking number of costumes (requiring a record number of costume changes) are based on William Ivy Long’s 2001 Tony winners, and they are a spectacular bunch, and provided by Networks, which also provided sets, original design by Robin Wager, but more of the “bus-and-truck” variety than you’d expect from a production of this caliber. Ulla’s intermission refurbishing of Max’s office no longer earns oohs and aahs as it did in the First National Tour or at or Musical Theatre West in 2009, and backdrops are mostly the kind of painted scrims easily transported for one-nighters.
There can be no nitpicking whatsoever about Steven Young’s appropriately glitzy lighting design, Julie Ferrin’s topnotch sound design, Denice Paxton’s makeup design, Yolanda Rowell’s costume coordination, Gretchen Morales & Melanie Cavaness’s prop coordination, or Cliff & Kat Senior’s wigs.
Jene Roach is technical director, Justen Asher assistant technical director, and Donna Parsons technical coordinator. Nicole Wessell is production stage manager, Teresa Hanrahan production manager, and David Jordan Nestor assistant stage manager. Brian Steven Shaw and Hannah Simmons are dance assistants.
The Producers is produced by Daniel Dawson, Gretchen Dawson, and Jeanette Dawson.
T.J. Dawson is Executive Producer and Artistic Director.
The Producer opens 3-D Theatricals’ 2014 season with a Mel Brooksian bang, and will be followed by a trio of bona fide crowd-pleasers—Into The Woods, Damn Yankees, and Ragtime. Though I can’t help wishing there were at least one recent hit a la last season’s 9 To 5, Shrek The Musical, and Legally Blonde, these are all four Broadway classics, and add up to an exciting year ahead for T.J. Dawson and his 3-D Theatricals, without question this century’s greatest gift to Southern California musical theater.
Plummer Auditorium, 210 E. Chapman Ave., Fullerton.
February 1, 2014
Photos: Isaac James Creative