Regional Reviews: Phoenix
It's 1959 and Max Bialystock is a down on his luck theatrical producer who once was "The King of Broadway." His latest show Funny Boya musical version of Hamlethas just flopped and he has to continually romance a series of little old ladies to get them to invest in his productions, something that is too taxing even for Max. When Leo Bloom, an accountant who has been sent to audit Max's books, makes the comment that Max actually raised $2,000 more than Funny Boy cost, so he actually made money on the flop, Leo states that "a producer could actually make more money with a flop than a hit." Upon hearing that, the wheels in Max's head start to turn and he determines the ultimate scheme to make it rich on Broadway. They need to find the worst play ever written, hire the worst director, cast the worst actors, raise $2 million dollars, twice as much money than they actually need, and when the show flops they will both be rich. Of course, in typical Brooks comedic fashion, things don't go at all as planned.
The story basically follows the plot of film, which starred Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder as Max and Leo. But Brooks and fellow book-writer Thomas Meehan added even more comical bits to beef up the characters and flesh out the plot points as well as nicely show the growing friendship between Bialystock and Bloom. The Tony-winning book has some of the best comic set-ups and pay-offs, including several bits that recur or get big laughs many scenes after the initial set up. For Broadway, Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick were a winning pair as Max and Leo, with Lane winning a Tony; and Brooks' Tony winning musical score is a gem, featuring the couple of numbers that were also in the film, along with hilarious and romantic duets, big production numbers, and some effective soul searching solos for the main characters.
Michael McAssey and Jared Mancuso are a perfect pair to take on the roles of producers Bialystock and Bloom, respectively. With the characters caught up in numerous funny situations, both have perfect comic timing to make the lunacy resonate, delivering their many jokes in grand style. McAssey has a rich voice that he uses to great effect on his many songs and delivers a convincing portrayal of the exhausted, money-driven womanizing producer just trying to make a buck. His second act solo, "Betrayed," gets a tour de force delivery. It is a winning performance.
Slightly echoing the voice and mannerisms of Broderick, Mancuso perfectly instills Leo with the anxious mannerisms of the nervous lowly accountant with low self-esteem yet one who has big dreams of being a successful Broadway producer. Mancuso gives Bloom a huge likability factor that makes the audience quickly sympathize with him, yet his hilarious hysteric outbursts and close attachment to his little blue blanket also brings out some big laughs. He is also a skilled dancer.
Nicole Benoit portrays Ulla the sexpot Swedish actress/secretary impeccably. With a consistent and funny Swedish accent she brings out the humorous parts of this voluptuous character. With legs that go on for miles, Benoit dances exceptionally, at times kicking her legs up so high they practically hit her head. Ulla's show-stopping song, "When You Got It, Flaunt It" includes a moment when she says "Ulla now belt" and Benoit does just that, blowing the roof off the theatre.
The rest of the main cast includes Michael Moeller as Roger De Bris, the "worst director" they hire, Morgan Reynolds as De Bris' "common law assistant" Carmen Ghia, and Greg Kalafatas as Franz Liebkind, the author who has written the worst play Max and Leo find: Springtime For Hitler: A Gay Romp with Adolf and Eva at Berchtesgaden. They are all impressive, with Moeller hilarious as the prancing but forceful director and Reynolds a scream as the lover/assistant of De Bris; they are a comical couple of mismatched sizes, which adds to the gaiety, so to speak, but you also feel the deep love they have for each other. Also, Reynolds' way of walking is one of the funniest things you'll see in a long time. Kalafatas is an absolute riot as the Hitler-loving playwright, instilling every movement, line delivery and song with hilarity. He also has a few brief moments when he plays Leo's boss to great effect. All three practically eat, chew and spit out the sceneryand the audience relishes every moment.
Director Clayton Phillips succeeds in every possible way, making the humorous moments pop and the actors shine; he has added many original comical bits, including a funny ABT reference in the song "Betrayed" that gets a big laugh. Choreographer Kurtis W. Overby has come up with some inventive steps, including adding to some of the best ones that original director/choreographer Susan Stroman won a Tony for. And, I'm assuming that both Phillips and Overby partnered on the well-choreographed scene changes that incorporate the ensemble cast to swiftly move the action along in creative ways.
As is typical at ABT, the production elements are knock-outs, with Nick Mozak's very impressive 1950s style set design that includes multiple large set pieces and a beautiful Manhattan silhouette skyline backdrop. The costumes are copies of William Ivey Long's Tony winning originals, so ABT audiences will see exactly what New York audiences saw; William C. Kirkham's lighting design adds plenty of bright comical pop to the proceedings; the sound design from Jason Lynn is crisp and clear; and Adam Berger's music direction is quite effective in achieving lush harmonies from the ensemble numbers.
While a musical spoof about a musical of Hitler might seem offensive in mocking one of the greatest tragedies of the 20th century, The Producers is complete satire, with jokes and characters that are both amusing and at times even charming, and in the end the show isn't really offensive toward anyone, except perhaps Hitler himself. Bursting with uproarious jokes and virtually nonstop laughter, The Producers is probably the funniest show to play Broadway in the past twenty years, worthy of all the awards and accolades it won. With an astonishingly talented cast, impressive choreography and creative elements and impeccable direction, ABT is starting off their 10th season in grand fashion with another can't miss production.
The Producers runs through November 9th, 2014, at the Arizona Broadway Theatre, 7701 West Paradise Lane in Peoria. Tickets can be ordered at azbroadway.org or by calling 623 776-8400.
Book by Mel Brooks and Thomas Meehan