Farmers Alley does Brooks proud with ‘The Producers’
KALAMAZOO, MICH.–For the second time this summer, I say , “Thank God for Mel Brooks.”
Farmers Alley’s current production of The Producers is funny, well-staged and a total delight. Director Bill Burns takes Brooks’ incredible over-the-top script and a top-notch troupe of actors to create arguably the best musical of the season so far. It made for a great bookend after seeing Penny Seats Young Frankenstein in Ann Arbor this month.
The story of The Producers perfectly reflects Brooks’ knack for pushing funny buttons and laughing in the face of people who say, “You can’t do that!”
Max Bialystock (Stephen Wallem)is a Broadway producer on the skids. His accountant, Leo Bloom (Tony Humrichouser), is a nebbish with dreams of bigger things. Bloom, in reviewing the books of Max’s latest flop, observes that a producer could make a fortune if he knew his play was going to tank if he raised ten or 20 times the amount of money needed. With no profits from the play, no one would have to paid back.
They find what they think is the perfect guaranteed flop in a script titled “Springtime for Hitler,” a valentine to the architect of the Holocaust written by an eccentric German ex-pat soldier (Atis Kleinbergs) keeping pigeons on the roof of his Greenwich Village apartment building.
The reason The Producers works (The musical is based on the 1968 film) is that Brooks establishes a love relationship between Bialystock and Bloom, and infuses that love with his own brand of broad humor, which involves plenty of well-played moments centered on buxom, leggy blonde beauty Ulla, the actress receptionist the boys hire (Cassandra Sandberg) and the over-the-top gay personas of Director Roger DeBris (Dirk Lumbard) and his assistant/lover Carmen Ghia (Dwight L. Trice Jr.). None of the jokes work, though, unless we believe that Max and Leo are brothers in love.
There is a part of me that, while watching the ham-fisted portrayals of DeBris and Ghia as flamboyant caricatures of gay “theatre folk,” if this kind of humor is out of step, or should be relegated to the nostalgia bin. But in the hands of deft actors, the material is a hoot. Too, even the objectification of ULA seems a bit off-key for 2018. As the second act brings “Springtime for Hitler” alive on the stage of The Little Theatre at Western Michigan University, one wonders for a moment if this is really “okay.” But, again, the audacity of the humor that has turned the film into a cult classic, takes over and everyone with a sense of humor is laughing and smiling. It’s just damn funny.
And just maybe, if we pause an extra second, we can view the hilarity of the show within this show as a reminder of just how utterly absurd the existence of Neo Nazis are today. It’s not the fictional play that is offensive, but rather it is the idea that anyone can still hold the Nazi ideals as current seems preposterous. “Springtime for Hitler” permanently renders Nazism an absurdity.
Mr. Wallem fills the bill just right as Max, right down to his near flop-sweat on opening night, which played right into the image of Max as a descending mess of a man who is reduced to dating elderly women with fat checkbooks to finance his shows. His vocals and comedic timing are always on the mark. Mr. Humrichouser, Mr. Wallem’s real-life partner, hit a few pitchy spots in his singing, but his deft hoofing and acting more than made up for it. Ms. Sandberg plays the Swedish bombshell with legs that seem o go into the back of her neck, but her boop-boop-be-doo is not all there is to her, and she displays excellent timing and vocals.
Mr. Lumbard, a regular at Farmers Alley, is a great fit for Roger, whether he is in a dress or a Nazi uniform, and he showed great chops when he inadvertently sat on his mic pack and knocked out his body mic audio. Realizing what had happened and that he could not fix it before the scene ended, he dialed up his own volume and pushed out his vocals the old fashioned way. And not to be left out is another FA regular, Mr. Kleinbergs, whose portrayal of the nutty German author of “Springtime” rivals any I have seen on or off Broadway for the character.
Farmers Alley spent a great deal on this show, between the equity actors and the multitude of costumes. They cut no corners that I could see. The set designs of Max’s apartment and the “Springtime” set are well done. And the ensemble does a top-notch job as well.
In the fiftieth anniversary of The Producers film, Farmers Alley has done the author proud.