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Pittsburgh by Ann Miner


The Producers

The Producers
Lee Roy Reams in The Producers the new Mel Brooks musical
Photo: Paul Kolnik

In September of 2002, Mel Brooks' smash hit The Producers began a touring schedule right here in Pittsburgh. The tour has wound its way around the country and returned this week to the Benedum Center for a brief stop, still full of energy and laughs. Lewis J. Stadlen played Max for the first time on that initial visit to Pittsburgh, and he reprises the role here in a more developed portrayal, after performing in many cities, with a break for a six-month stint on Broadway.

Close to its 1600th performance on Broadway, Mel Brooks' first musical was the juggernaut of the 2001-2002 season and will go on later this year to be one of the few entries in the "film to musical to musical film" genre in a screen adaptation which will include many of the original stage cast. The Producers is the story of a Broadway producer who taps little old ladies for enough money to over-invest the worst show in history so he can cry "flop" and make a getaway to Rio with the bankroll. Full of Borscht Belt punch lines and making a satirical target of everyone from gays to Winston Churchill to Nazis, The Producers (with a book by Mel Brooks and Thomas Meehan) is possibly the most opportunistic musical ever when it comes to finding ways to make a joke. Though some of the jokes are so bad they're funny, but only funny the first time, most of the humor still lands on repeated viewings.

For years a skillful stage performer, Stadlen has developed a more nuanced portrayal as Max over the last two years. He changes his voice to accentuate different lines, which brings out more of the humor than using just his trademark, raspy growl. His Max still seems more sane than that of Nathan Lane, but is a good match with Hunter Foster's Leo Bloom. Stadlen sails through this very physical role with little sign of weariness, which is pretty amazing.

As Max's cohort in crime, Foster (coming straight from the Broadway company) brings a sweetness to the role of the neurotic accountant. He's not quite there in perfecting the nebbishness of Bloom, but sings and dance with aplomb. During the last stop in Pittsburgh, Lee Roy Reams, cast in the role of director Roger De Bris, became injured and didn't pick up his official debut until after the tour moved on. It is a pleasure to see him in fine form now, and his Roger De Bris is wonderfully accomplished. Reams' zeal in this broad role never tips over the top, and his singing and dancing are excellently done, while never making De Bris seem more talented than he's supposed to be.

Other supporting roles are slightly less successful: Harry Bouvy (a local boy) lands every comic opportunity as Carmen Ghia, but the role allows little room for making an individual mark; Charley Izabella King doesn't make as big a delivery as Ulla as is possible and is difficult to understand much of the time (at least part of the blame goes to the sound system, which distorted many funny lines and lyrics on opening night); Michael McCormick is not quite crazy enough as Franz Liebkind, but is proficient. The group of performers who play a multitude of supporting roles of both genders don't stand out as much as hoped. Some of the characters can be great nuggets of humor, but seem to be flatter here. Scott Davidson does stand out as a properly pontifical accounting firm boss (a CPA!). All, along with the ensemble, perform Susan Stroman's choreography and Mel Brooks' songs like a well-oiled machine.

Still a glorious highlight is the "Springtime for Hitler" number in the second act. The staging and performances are top drawer, combining to form a legendary display of camp humor.

The sets (Robin Wagner) and costumes (William Ivey Long) of The Producers are unbilled characters in the show. More jokes are presented through these staging components than can be attributed to many comic roles. Lighting by Peter Kaczorowski is excellent as well. The touring set is not diminished one bit from its Broadway prototype, and adds a lot to the luster of the show, which is a brilliantly wrapped package.

The Producers continues at the Benedum Center through Sunday, January 30. For performance and ticket information, call (412) 456-6666 or visit www.pgharts.org.


See the current Schedule of Pittsburgh Theatre.


-- Ann Miner

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