“I wanna put on shows that so enthrall ‘em—read my name in Winchell’s column! I wanna be a Producer…” so sings “Leo Bloom” towards the start of “The Producers”—Mel Brooks’ foray into Broadway’s theatrical landscape based on his 1968 cinematic blockbuster of the same name, that became proportionately (if not more) successful as a stage musical. Effectively putting the Comedy (with a capital “C’) into ‘Musical Comedy’, it was the winner of a record-setting TWELVE 2001 Tony Awards–among them, “Best Musical”. Now as the latest offering in their winning 2017-2018 season, “One More Productions” is giving local So Cal audiences their turn to catch this uproarious, entertainment experience that, in its purest, most unmitigated form is like “levity with melodic notes on top”, at the landmark “Gem Theatre” in Garden Grove California. With a book by Mel Brooks adapted from his screenplay and Thomas Meehan (himself highly esteemed for his prior work on musicals like “Annie” and “Hairspray”,) the Music and Lyrics are also by Brooks—featuring several made famous in that 1968 hit movie. These include the infamous “Springtime For Hitler”” which, for the stage has even been expanded to incorporate an accompanying number performed by the Ol’ Fuhrer himself called “Heil Me”. Co-Directed by “One More Productions” Co-Founders, Nicole Cassesso and Damien Lorton (who also Co-Stars as the hyper has-been Impresario, “Max Bialystock”) the choreography comes gratis Shauna Bradford, Heather Smith and Allan Collins. Staying true to that fore-mentioned lyric (to say nothing of the show’s entire celebrated and storied reputation,) their new production is, without a doubt, something to be totally enthralled by!
A rollicking, slightly ribald, outrageous-as-they-come, laugh-out-loud farce that has been a smash hit since its 2001 debut, “The Producers” is enriched by a plethora of show-stopping musical numbers, along with loads of Brooks’ signature ‘Borsch-Belt’ tinged buffoonery that has thoroughly kept audiences all over the globe in stitches. In spite of all the character’s talk about producing a flop, this is most definitely far from being one! The time, altered a tad from the film is 1958, where faded Broadway Producer “Max Bialystock”—a man at one time hailed (as he reminds us on no uncertain terms,) as “The King Of Old Broadway” is desperate to get back to the top of his profession again, particularly after his latest catastrophe—a musical rendering of “Hamlet” called “Funny Boy”, closes in only one night: “Bialystock has done it again—it’s the WORST show in town!” the first (-or more aptly put, LAST) nighters grumble over how horrendous the Showman’s latest is; “We’ve seen shit before but not like this!” they further grouse, while scurrying out of “Shubert Alley” and away from what they deem to be the thespian equivalent of a backed-up toilet! Anything’s possible on Broadway though, and fate intervenes though, when our Hero finds an unlikely ally in a mousey accountant named “Leo Bloom”, after he guilelessly hypothesizes that, under the right circumstances, one could make far more money with a flop show than with a hit. Thus, joining forces (well, a little convincing is required for Leo,) the two set out to produce the worst musical ever to hit Broadway.
“Step one,” Max outlines: “We find the worst script; Step Two: we hire the worst director; Step 3: We raise TWO Million dollars (–One Million for me, another for you–there’s a lot of little old ladies out there!” Bialystok continues; “Step 4: We hire the worst actors in New York, open on Broadway and before you can say Step 5: take the two million and abscond to Rio!” That is of course, once their incipient “flop” inevitably folds after just one performance. Things get a bit more complicated though, when their chosen production—virtually a ‘Billet-Doux’ to the Third Reich titled “Spring Time For Hitler: A Gay Romp With Adolph And Ava At Berchtesgaten” (written by a flipped-out former Nazi named “Franz Liebkind”) is perceived to be a red-hot satire rather than an out-and-out turkey, and is immediately proclaimed the hit of the season! Along the way, other over-the-top characters the boys encounter involve the show’s cross-dressing Director, “Roger Elizabeth DeBris”—coupled with his slinky MALE “Common-Law Assistant” named “Carmen Ghia”, and the busty, blonde Swedish Knockout they hire as their temporary secretary, “Ulla Inga Hansen Benson Yansen Tallen Hallen Svaden Swanson”, who will eventually become “Spring Time’s” sultry, “Marlena Dietrich-esque” Leading Lady.
The unlikeliest “Love Letter” to Broadway and perhaps the “musical” genre in its own right, one of the most invigorating aspects of Brook’s score is how just about every individual number references, or ‘pays homage’ to another unforgettable musical or show-tune; for instance, Max’s opening “The King Of Old Broadway”, is a direct inference to “Fiddler On The Roof”; “Keep It Gay” is like a Valentine to LGBT-themed shows like “La Cage Aux Folles” of even “Kinky Boots” (which came along some time after.) There’s also “That Face”–a lighthearted tribute to all those wonderful old “Astaire and Rogers” movies such as “Top Hat” or “Swing Time”. Arguably though, the most priceless of these comes toward the conclusion of Act One with “Along Came Bialy”, as Bialystock begins searching for ‘investors” by entering “Little Old Lady Land” (–again, a direct allusion to “Love Land” in Stephen Sondheim’s equally iconic “Follies”.) Better (and more side-splitting) still is how all the little old ladies form a nifty ‘tap line’—using their walkers! The ending for this stage musical is a bit more optimistic (albeit just as improbable) than the satiric parting shots of the 1968 classic, but it remains witty enough for a Mel Brooks show while exercising a pleasant little ‘punch’ one might expect from his work. Either way, it’s absolutely perfect for any musical penned for “The Great White Way”! Moreover, after all the cast bows, Brooks inserted one more quick, concluding number—appropriately titled “Goodbye”, thus single-handedly beginning the recent trend of musicals that inventively have their finale after the curtain calls! In between all the all-out wackiness, there’s plenty of laugh-out-loud (make that laugh-out-thunderously) comedic bits, one-liners and sight gags, which for their version, Directors Lorton and Cassesso fully capitalize on; plus, given that they have such a tremendously farcical script to work with, they also wisely realize that the most whimsical elements of it work best if played at full speed, hence they keep things going at an almost break neck pace. This makes each quip, jibe or witticism all the more impactful. The pair also judiciously–even innovatively—utilize their entire auditorium, manifesting various entrances and exits from every available door and aisle. This too, verifiably enhances the overall intimacy and liveliness of the show—subliminally leaving their audience with the invigorating sensation of never fully knowing what to expect next—nor where it’s going to come from!
By the same token, the choreography by Bradford, Smith and Collins is itself a collaborative effort, but this probably accounts for the spectacular variety of styles and steps that enliven each dazzling number. The opening, “King Of Old Broadway” is a jubilant street celebration one might expect to find in New York’s “Boro Park” or “Crown Heights” in Brooklyn (both renowned for their substantial Orthodox and Hasidic Jewish communities.) Overflowing with nods to numerous traditional Hebraic folk dances (–-and complete with a blind ‘fiddler’,) there’s even a stray pair of Nuns joining in the hoopla! Next, in “I Wanna Be A Producer”, the girls—clad in glittering gold-lame, execute some very “Vegas-y” cavorting that culminate in a stunning “Kick-Line” (one of several the show can boast.) Right before the act break, once our heroes have their Script and Director lined-up, Max must go out and find backers to bankroll his fiasco-to-be. This brings about one of the show’s biggest and most antic Production numbers, “Along Came Bialy” in which Max, in seeking out “investors”, enters “Little Old Lady Land” (“They’re my Angels—I’m their Devil” he winks.) Loaded with daring Balletic Jetȇs and Pirouettes by dancers clad in drab-flowered house-smocks, girdles, and support hose—look carefully and you’ll even notice a few of them are men in drag (–somewhat like the geriatric answer to the infamous “Cagelles” seen in “La Cage Aux Folles”!) Their masterstroke though, is how it all climaxes in a hilarious “Tap Line” of horny old broads using their walkers to tap instead of actual tap-shoes! Subsequently, immediately after the entr’acte, the dance interlude concocted for “That Face” is, while admittedly brief, is nonetheless a smooth and effervescent sampling of some pretty debonair maneuvers; however, the truly A-Plus intermezzo though (this time with real tap dancing) comes along as part of the iconic “Spring Time For Hitler” number (Yes, it all lives up to the hype and is very worth waiting for, and in many respects might even be regarded as the crowning glory to the entire production!)
As a performer on-stage, Damien Lorton is also nothing less than remarkable as the self-described, “lying double-crossing, two-faced, back-stabbing. scheming old crook”, “Max Bialystock”. Lorton possesses a true Broadway Belter’s vocal timbre and he shows it off with tremendous results–immediately, astounding us with his opening salvo, “The King Of Old Broadway”. Shortly after, he does it all over again with his lyrics at the start of “We Can Do It”, once “Leo” innocently stumbles upon his momentous realization (at least to our boy “Bialy”) that a flop can be, in point of fact, more valuable—provided one knows how to exploit it (financially speaking.) When “Leo” joins in with his decidedly unenthusiastic verses (protesting “we CAN’T do it”,) the number transforms into an electrifying duet. Yet for all his genuinely Award Worthy capering throughout, his true ‘piece-de-resistance’ comes in the form of Max’s eleventh-hour, stark raving, rapid-fire romp (delivered in his jail cell) called “Betrayed”. In it, Bialystock reflects back on events of the entire show—recounting key moments in a swift, near-unhinged stream of consciousness (Leo and Ulla, we learn, have grabbed the money and bolted to Rio per the plan, leaving poor ‘Maxy’ to account for the missing moolah!) As his high-strung, ‘blue-blanket obsessed” partner, “Leo Bloom”, Alex Bodrero–himself a familiar face over the footlights at “The Gem”, adds to his already vast and admirable repertoire of characters, cultivating the most laughs with much of what (in lesser hands) could too-easily come off as silly or at worst, unfunny. So too, much of the songs he’s been given are an impeccable fit for his proven vocal talents. He heightens “I Wanna Be A Producer” into a bona fide showstopper early on, before handily demonstrating his more sublime skill with a vivacious serenade via the Second Act opener, “That Face”. Sung opposite “Ulla”, the two tailor it so that by the time the song’s coda is reached, they’ve treated us to a surprisingly sensitive and romantic duet in the midst of all the absurdity. Together Lorton and Bodrero have many superlative moments and exchanges, but few if any are better or more meaningful than “ ‘Til Him” which occurs late in the story’s court-room climax. The emotive words and more relaxed, lilting, cadence the song is composed of, really suit Bodrero’s voice splendidly, and he most assuredly makes the most of his chance to strum the audience’s heart-strings one final time: “I was always frightened, fraught with worry…’Til him; I was going nowhere in a hurry–‘Til him. He filled up my empty life–filled it to the brim. There could never ever be another one…like him,” he croons.
Joining them is Claire Perry as the Nordic Bombshell, “Ulla”, giving this Office-Assistant-cum-burgeoning–Starlet plenty of “Ulla-La”! With a spot-on Swedish accent and correspondingly venerable song and dance abilities, hers is an exceedingly likable presence on stage, and she easily garners the most from her numbers and various comic bits (In fact, on opening night, even her first exit garnered a huge ovation!) Her initial offering, “If You’ve Got It Flaunt It” brought her some considerable laughs and wider grins as she strutted her stuff in between verses—bathed all the while in bold red lights (talk about subliminal symbolism!) After intermission, she also more than held up her share of “That Face” capably launching Act Two in a blithe and bubbly, “feel-good” fashion. It’s all done in good humor though, and what’s just as significant is how Perry’s fundamental slant on her character is far from the tired, stereotypical “Platinum-haired Bimbo” or “Gold Digger” that it would similarly be too easy to write her off as (just look at the original movie!) Instead, she gives us more of an exuberant free spirit (—albeit one who may not be averse to a little titillation,) but with for more going for her than just tight skirts and an eccentric pronunciation. This consequently makes “Ulla” much more well-rounded and even more exciting. Just as meritorious and memorable is Chris Harper as the madcap Fascist “Playwright” Franz Liebkind. When the lights up on him, we find “Herr Liebkind” up on the roof with his collection of pigeons (here represented by a bunch of oversized cut-outs held up by members of the orchestra.) There, this daffy Dramaturge sings the praises of his erstwhile homeland with “In Old Bavaria”. When joined by Leo and Max he loses no time in decrying all the ‘fake news’ dished out by the BBC, before explaining his sincere purpose for writing the play is to show us “the Hitler HE knew and loved—the one with a song in his heart!” Pair this with Franz’s following—and every inch as nutty–descant, the “Guten Tag Hop-Clop” (which, he informs his visitors, was “Der Fuher’s” favorite tune!) Combined, you have a delectable duo of droll, dithery amusement—let alone how they furnish Harper the prime opportunity to demonstrate his own enviable vocal talents—specifically in this latter song’s ride out wherein he gives over with some fairly powerful ‘money-notes’. This latter ditty also enables him to show-off some pretty agile moves to boot, with a spirited ‘translation’ of the German “Schuhplattler” folk dance (better known on Western shores as the “Slap Dance”.) “It’s fun,” Max breezes (trying to keep his poker-face from getting too crimson.) “It’s sort of a Nazi Hoe-Down!” In the second half, Harper also knocks em’ dead during the audition segment with his energetic take on “Haben Sie Gahort Das Deutsche Band?” (translated: “Have You Ever Heard The German Band?”) which, on top of unwittingly snagging him the role of Adolph Hitler, it’s also a humongous crowd-pleaser too.
Robert Edward is also an unabashed delight as the dishy, swishy Director/Choreographer Roger “Elizabeth” DeBris, (of whom Max notes. “couldn’t direct us to the bathroom!”) “They say there’s no such thing as ‘Natural Beauty’,” DeBris pronounces upon his entrance; “I’m glad to prove them wrong!” Even his doorbell plays “I Feel Pretty” (from “Westside Story”!) This role also validates what a brilliant stage-chameleon Edward can be—especially taking into account his preceding appearance at “The Gem” was earlier this season as the rough gangster-turned-would-be-dramatist, “Cheech” in the So Cal regional debut of “Bullets Over Broadway”. This time around he’s utterly different—and virtually unrecognizable from that previous portrayal, painting up “Roger” as an uber-sophisticated, cross-dressing combination of bygone silver-screen idols “George Sanders” and “Ronald Coleman” (–with a few fey touches of “Roger Moore” thrown in for good measure.) Likewise, think of voice as being a big booming ‘mezzo-baritone’ (if there’s any such thing) which he put into the first-class service of “Keep It Gay”–the unabashed, ‘closets-are-only-for-clothes’ triumph of the First Act. Through it are expressed some wry (–not to mention hilarious) truths seldom spoken of the theater, but bitingly astute for anyone who’s ever spent any time backstage, once “Roger” introduces his design team—a trio of flagrantly “Out and Proud” Gay men to undertake the more ‘artistic’ elements of his extravaganzas (like “Sets”, “Costumes” and Choreography”) and one very dour Lesbian to manage all the technical stuff!
Edward also incandesces with “Heil Me”—seen in the context of the show-within-a-show once “Roger” is called upon at the last-minute to step into the ‘passing for straight’ lead, once Franz has stumbled and broke his leg (this, after Max has cavalierly dared to breach the theatrical ‘taboo” of wishing him “Good Luck” on Opening Night!) What’s more, Peter Crisafulli’s refreshing turn as the shamelessly flashy, flamboyant and fabulous, “Carmen Ghia” is charmingly unique as he makes this character entirely his own—not some carbon-copy impersonation of Broadway’s Roger Bart (who himself created the role basing it almost entirely on that originated on the big-screen!) On this occasion, Crisafulli steals practically every scene he’s in—and in all the very best and most satisfying ways. He categorically prevails with his contribution to “Keep It Gay”, as well as later when leading the dance ‘audition’ for “Springtime For Hitler” by attempting to teach a dance combination to coterie of clumsy chorus boys with more left-feet than they even have legs! (“Arabesque, prepare—pirouette and twirl; Goose-step, Goose-step, waltz clog and kick!” he cajoles them in a scene reminiscent of “A Chorus Line”, but with a gang of inept, ungainly and anything but graceful auditionees!) Brandon Taylor Jones too, showcases his incredible voice to exceptional advantage as the Brown-shirted Nazi “Show-Tenor” at the center of the whole “Spring Time For Hitler” spectacle. Race Chambers also supplies terrific support as “Leo’s” boss, “Mr. Marks”—played in this instance as an abusive and over-privileged adolescent punk who savors every excuse to belittle his overworked staff of human-calculators. “Remember you’re a NOBODY!” he shouts at Leo; “A ‘P.A.’! I am a C.P.A.–a CERTIFIED Public Accountant! A rank that a miserable little worm like you can NEVER hope to achieve!”
Wally Huntoon’s clever (and resourceful) split-level set is more intricate than has often been hitherto seen on “The Gem’s” stage, with Silver-lame curtains serving as shiny borders, and perhaps for the first time, the orchestra (usually hidden off stage,) is situated up stage above all the action on an elevated platform that essentially ‘frames’ the back of the set. John Hyrkas’ Meanwhile, Lighting Designs rely on digital stage lights that can easily change hue as needed, thus subtly enhancing (to a large degree) the mood of any given scene or song, while also notching-up the general giddiness and geniality inherent to various portions of the story developing before us. An excellent example of this takes place with the intro. to “Whitehall and Marks” (Leo’s ‘day job’) and how it’s bathed in a sickly green light; then, once he enters his ‘fantasy’ in “I Wanna Be A Producer”, the lights change suddenly to violet, and then bright gold to add a mirthful sense of vibrancy, until he finds he’s back in the office at which time they tone-down to a dingy green again. Phenomenal too are the Costume Designs by Ramzi Jneid (–and Oh, WHAT costumes they are!) Indeed, so amazing is the attire sported from beginning to end that they each could easily rate an entire and separate review all their own! Suffice it to say then, that Jneid has given his wildest imagination free reign with the gratifying outcome being everything from saucy gold-lame ‘show girl’ mini-gowns, to saggy, baggy, greyish-blue Haus-Frau frocks (accented with dapper little pill-box hats, naturally) worn by Max’s many ‘investors’, over and above some of the most outlandish German-inspired getups for the fateful ‘show-within-a show’. Even Max and Leo’s opening night tuxedos (–smartly accessorized by with flowing back cape in Max’s case,) are something to lay eyes on. As fantastic as many of them appear though, his designs shrewdly trend more toward the surreal as opposed to anything overtly shocking or salacious.
“It ain’t no mystery—in politics or history, the thing you gotta know is—EVERYTHING IS SHOWBIZ!” Having officially opened on Saturday, September, 29th, “The Producers” is slated to play through Sunday, October 21st, 2018 at “The Gem Theatre’ located at: 12852 on historic Main Street in Garden Grove CA. Showtimes are: Thursdays through Saturdays at 8:00 PM with Sunday Matinees at 2:00 PM; (On Saturday, October 13th, there will be also be an additional Matinee at 2:00 PM.) Tickets for all performances may be obtained by calling (714) 741-9550, ext. 221, or on-line by logging onto: http://www.onemoreproductions.com. ; Special discounts for Seniors and Children (12 and under) are also being offered for this engagement, while reduced-price “Student Rush” tickets are also available for Thursdays and Fridays performances, and may be purchased thirty-minutes before showtime.
Production Stills By Lisa Scarsi, Courtesy Of Shoko Araki And “One More Productions” (www.onemoreproductions.com) Special Thanks To Damien Lorton, Nicole Cassesso, Lisa Scarsi, Shoko Araki, Shauna Bradford, Heather Smith, Allan Collins And To The Cast & Crew Of “The Gem Theatre” and One More Productions’ 2018 Production Of Mel Brooks’ “The Producers” For Making This Story Possible.