Regional Reviews: San Jose/Silicon Valley
Perspective #2: Riotous, hilarious, sparkling, toe-tapping. So over-blown in portraying stereotypes of gays, Jews, Nazis, good-looking blondes, Irish, and old women that the ridicule is actually aimed at all those bigots who still hold such views.
Which is a more accurate overview of the 2001, twelve-Tony-winning The Producers, by the grand master of dark comedy in film and on stage, Mel Brooks (music/lyrics/book), and Thomas Meehan (book)? Has enough changed since its Great White Way premiere and huge success that in 2023 the humor of The Producers is just not that funny anymore? Or is it even more relevant than ever as a way to vividly show how ridiculous those stereotypes are and how stupid and mean-hearted are the people who actually believe and act on them?
Hillbarn Theatre and Conservatory put the case before its sold-out audience on opening night. Based on the almost constant, universal guffaws, spontaneous rounds of mid-performance applause, and smiles beaming and approvals buzzing as folks exited, The Producers is still seen for what it is at its heart an in-your-face, pull-no-punches, laugh-at-loud ridicule of the many stereotypes that unfortunately still haunt our society today. The case Hillbarn makes for continuing to enjoy Mel Brooks' always unconventional, sometimes uncomfortable sense of bizarre humor is strengthened by a production, directed by Erica Wyman-Abrahamson, that is in every respect big-stage, Broadway quality in an intimate setting where audience and actors are only a few feet apart.
Between the original, less-successful 1967 film, the 2001 big-hit, Broadway splash and its subsequent tours and the 2005 film version of the musical, the story of the partnership between washed-up, big-ego, Broadway producer Max Bialystock and his timid, virgin-to-the-core accountant Leo Blum is quite well known. The two venture into an under-the-cover scheme (quite literally for Max) to raise $2M from rich old ladies with names like Lick-Me Bite-Me and Kiss-Me Feel-Me. The cane-walking elderly are quite ready to write Max a big check for a quickie on his couch, on his desk, or on a sidewalk bench. Max and Leo's plan is to use that money to produce a sure-fire failure on Broadway, close it after the first night, and skip town with the dough–all somehow legal under IRS rules. However, when the gay Hitler and his even gayer-prancing Nazi chorus line in the musical "Springtime for Hitler" turn out to delight rather than disgust the New York crowds, the newest Broadway hit turns out to be a legal nightmare for Max and Leo.
As the stage lights come up, we see audience members leaving a theater, nuns, a garbage collector, and street people joining in song and dance in a rousing "Opening Night" as Max Bialystock's latest bomb on Broadway, Funny Boy, ends its one and only night on stage. Immediately, the combined mastery of musical, dance, and comical direction is vibrantly evidenced in the demonstrated talents and imaginations of Rick Reynolds, Christopher Childers, and Eric Wyman-Abrahamson, respectively. Voices ring in full-range harmonies, cast members move with vigor and precision, and Max himself is circled by all as he reigns over his latest flop, unceremoniously sitting atop his garbage-can throne.
That first scene is just one of many side-splittingly funny ones where the high quality of singing is matched by choreographed hilarity executed both to tickle and to impress. Old ladies lining up their walkers to stomp through a geriatric dance number that almost causes a stroke it is so funny; chorus girls dressed in silver glitz furiously tapping and kicking while singing in voices high and shrill; and Bavarians oom-pah-pah'ing in step and song with the kind of gusto normally coming after consuming a full stein of hops and suds–all are examples of the sheer fun that fills the stage time and again throughout the evening. All are enough to leave one's sides and cheeks aching from so much full-bodied laughter.
Probably like me, many audience members come into a production of The Producers with Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick firmly and fondly implanted in memory for their depictions of Max and Leo on both stage and in film. In the future, I for one will also picture Edward Hightower as the brassy, bombastic, big-in-every-respect Max, and James M. Jones as the nerdy, nervous, and highly naïve Leo. I will also relish the synergistic energy the two actors create as a pair on stage, each bouncing off the quirks and foibles of the other to find ways to raise the script's built-in humor of a thousand puns and stage pranks to even greater heights.
Both lead actors employ great lungs to sing with voices that can boom with full resound–Max from the get-go and Leo over time as his shaky timidity gives way to greater confidence and determination to be a real Broadway producer like his new-found buddy and partner-in-crime. When singing his near-show-ending "Betrayed," Edward Hightower uses every ounce of his creative juices and vocal prowess to wow and amuse us to the hilt as, from his jail cell, Max recounts through snippets songs, dances, and brief scenes all that has happened to this point in his and Leo's (mis)adventures.
Surrounding the show's two stars are a collection of off-center, odd-beat oddballs who prove to be worthy of sustained applause and audience appreciation. Tops among these is Bay Area favorite Keith Pinto, as the closeted neo-Nazi who has penned the Hitler-honoring show that Max and Leo want to produce. As Franz Liebkind, Pinto truly steals the show as he and his cage-full of Nazi-winged pigeons perform "In Old Bavaria." His Franz manipulates his heavily accented words with vocals that twist, turn, and tweak nearly as much as his body does–a body that at times seems like it is a wooden marionette with someone else controlling the invisible strings, moving his limbs and joints in every direction at once. Every time he steps on the stage, it is as if the spotlight is only on him since all eyes automatically zoom in to see what crazy antics his Franz will get into next.
Franz is so clearly a nut case, we can dismiss him as such and not worry too much as we roar in laughter as he high-steps in his neo-Nazi worship. Other characters can be more problematic and leave us laughing now with some lingering guilt coming later. Renee DeWeese Moran is striking in every dimension as the Swedish, stacked blonde Ulla, who becomes secretary to Bialystock and Blum and whose long, exposed legs, curvy hips, and cooingly sung words leave both producers with eyes popping and body language at attention. John Mannion is bigger than life in his portrayal of the gaily flamboyant (with a capital "F") Roger DeBris, who may be the worst director on Broadway, but who dresses in fabulous drag and lives surrounded by the hottest, gay boys in New York who are dressed in leather, body-hugging spandex, or a few feathers and little else. Equally swish–or even more so–is Jesse Cortez as Roger's "assistant," with each the duo bringing fine voices and brilliant nuances to their comic-rich, over-the-top roles. But, like watching Ulla, it is difficult not to cringe a bit when script, director and actors have all accentuated to the highest level of hilarity the same stereotypes that are presently leading to horrible laws being enacted in many states.
Much of the Broadway feel of the Hillbarn production comes from the vast array of astonishing, laughter-producing costumes designed by Y. Sharon Peng. Chorus girls dressed as pretzels, beer steins, and sausages in buns; old ladies in Sunday-go-to-meeting hats and dresses with still a little bit of something naughty showing; Bavarians in lederhosen; a drag queen dressed as the Chrysler Building from head to toe–these are only a drop in the bucket of the show's many costumes worn and changed many times by this cast of twenty.
Kevin Davies' multiple set design ranges from a Times Square theater to a roof landing of a shady-part-of-town apartment building to the rather plain office of Max and Leo that is hysterically "re-decorated" by a well-meaning but not too-bright Ulla. All are splendidly lit with scene-enhancing slants, spots and shadows by Pamila Gray, while Sheraj Ragoobeer's sound design ensures that all singers–principals and ensemble–are clearly understood, in proper balance, and exactly timed with the taped orchestra's score.
I must admit that I laughed my head off during Hillbarn Theatre's exceptionally well-produced, well-directed, well-sung, and well-danced The Producers. I also must confess that I am not sure I will ever attend another production of the this comedy. There are just too many things that bothered me the next day about how women, gays, Jews, etc. are portrayed–even though the show is presented as tongue-in-cheek and with good intentions overall. And I especially find it troubling to believe that a reference to "Jewish American Princess" remains in 2023 as a line that is positioned with the intent of receiving a big laugh.
The Producers runs through May 14, 2023, at Hillbarn Theatre & Conservatory, 1285 East Hillsdale Blvd., Foster City CA. Please note: All patrons must wear a well-fitting mask at all times inside the Hillbarn facilities and auditorium. For tickets and information, please visit hillbarntheatre.org or call 650-349-6411.