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Regional Reviews: New Jersey / Delaware Valley

The Producers
Paper Mill Playhouse
Review by Bob Rendell

Michael Kostroff, Ashley Spencer,
and David Josefsberg

Photo by Jerry Dalia
The Paper Mill Playhouse production of the Mel Brooks/Thomas Meehan smash hit musical The Producers is a near replica of the original Broadway production. Given the brilliance and near perfection of director-choreographer Susan Stroman's original production, this reviewer wouldn't have it any other way.

Max Bialystock and Leo Bloom are back on the boards plotting to produce the surest-fire flop they can find. It turns out to be Springtime for Hitler by comically crazed neo-Nazi, Franz Liebkind. Their scheme is to raise ten times the cost of producing it from Max's investors, sex starved little old ladies whom he services. If the show flops, they can keep all the extra money that they have raised as no investor will expect any repayment. However, if it succeeds, there will not be enough money to pay off all the investors, and Max and Leo will go to jail.

As the re-creator of the original direction, Don Stephenson (ably assisted by choreography re-creator Bill Burns) has crisply staged this production with rewarding sharpness, fluidity, drive and ebullience. On occasion, Stephenson cannot resist trying to top Stroman. The result can be heavy handed in a work so delicately calibrated. Specifically, Stephenson has directed Ashley Spenser to exaggerate sexy secretary Ulla's comic Swedish accent by adding syllables to each word and stretching each of them out. This does not add to their humorousness, and disrupts the rat-a-tat punch line responses of Max and Leo. When he is playing "The Well Hung Stable Boy" to "The Virgin Milkmaid" of investor Hold Me, Touch Me, Max performs a particularly vulgar movement which replaces a less vulgar one (if only by dint of it having been funnier) performed in the original production. By the way, in case anyone out there doesn't already know, The Producers is a Mel Brooks vulgar, adult musical comedy. It is so spectacularly well written that it has proven a charm for sophisticated big city audiences. However, embellishing its pinpoint humor does it no service. Still, the most salient fact is that Stephenson's contribution is a most considerable, praise worthy asset.

Unhappily, there is a major, consequential problem with this production. It lies in the casting of the central role of Max Bialystock. Although he has extensively played Bialystock, Michael Kostroff lacks the ironic, deliriously manic, star quality comic touch to convey the spark of one of musical theatre's top of the line, laugh out loud comic inventions. This is noticeable right from the top of Max's first number, "The King of Broadway." The hilarious vocal inflections with their quizzical comic ironies, as well as the accompanying facial expressions and body language, which original star Nathan Lane brought to the role are not conveyed in Kostroff's performance. Resultantly, this fabulous number becomes an unhappy, angry dirge in his hands. The diminishment in humor continues in the first scene in Max's office where the haranguing Max loses much of the delightful playfulness and becomes angry and browbeating. Kostroff's performance makes the play's humor feel dated whereas the reality is that, with the role of Max in the right hands, The Producers still has the goods to soar magnificently from beginning to end.

David Josefsberg is quite good in the co-starring role of Leo Bloom, the unfulfilled milquetoast accountant who is ripe to be recruited into the scheme. Josefsberg brings charm and solid musical and comedic chops to the role. In fact, his "I Wanna Be a Producer" belatedly sets the production on track. Ashley Spencer plays Ulla, their hyper-sexy Swedish receptionist-actress. She brings the requisite good looks, a strong, mellifluous voice and a nice comic touch. It would be advantageous if Spencer could tone down the overly accented accent that Ulla has picked up at some point since leaving the St. James.

Kevin Pariseau as flamboyant Springtime for Hitler director Roger De Bris and Mark Price as his "common-law assistant" Carmen Ghia are hilariously on target. John Treacy Egan is a pitch perfect riot as Liebkind. Madeleine Doherty is back in top, fresh comic form playing Hold Me Touch Me, the first of Max's little old ladies, a role which she originated on Broadway in 2001. The balance of the supporting cast and ensemble contribute mightily to the production's excellences.

It would be impossible to overpraise Robin Wagner's witty and impressive original sets (scenic coordination here by David Peterson) and William Ivey Long's amusing costumes (costume coordinator here is Martha Bromelmeier). Most of all, Susan Stroman's ability to shape all the Mel Brooks mishegas (craziness) into an integrated musical comedy reminds us of her magnificent talent. As director-choreographer, Stroman has borrowed from the cannon, and created a "Springtime for Hitler" marching number which demonstrates the power of musical theatre staging.

For anyone who hasn't seen the stage musical The Producers, it would be a shame to miss this opportunity to see the Paper Mill's lavish, faithful recreation of this excellent musical comedy.

The Producers continues performances (Evenings: Wednesday - Thursday 7:30 pm/ Friday - Saturday 8 pm / Sunday 7 pm/ Matinees: Thursday, Saturday, Sunday 1:30 pm) through October 23, 2016, at the Paper Mill Playhouse, 22 Brookside Drive, Millburn, NJ 07041. Box Office: 973-376-4343; online:

Book by Mel Brooks/ Music and Lyrics by Mel Brooks/ Original Direction and Choreography by Susan Stroman/ Original Choreography Re-created by Bill Burns/ Original Direction Re-created by Don Stephenson

Usherettes: Emily Jeanne Phillips, Kate Wesler
Max Bialystock: Michael Kostroff
Blind Violinist/Scott/Donald Dinsmore: Jesse Carrey Beaver
Leo Bloom: David Josefsberg
Hold Me Touch Me: Madeleine Doherty
Mr. Mark/Kevin/Jason Green/Churchill/Sergeant/Trustee: Scott Cote
Accountant Soloist/O'Houllihan: Jeffrey Johnson II
Showgirl/Shirley/Kiss Me Feel Me: Jessica Sheridan
Franz Liebkind: John Treacy Egan
Carmen Ghia: Mark Price
Roger De Bris: Kevin Pariseau
Bryan/Jack LaPidus/FDR/Judge: Michael Biren
Ulla: Ashley Spencer
Kick Me Bite Me: Hannah Flam
Lead Tenor: John Jeffords
Stalin/O'Riley: Jacob ben Widmar
O'Rourke: Brad Frenette
Add'l. Ensemble: Courtney Brady/Naomi Kakuk/Jenny Larouche/Liz McKendry

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