Brad Musgrove, a member of the original Broadway cast of “The Producers,” recreates Susan Stroman’s original direction and choreography in the Theatre By The Sea production, which runs through Sept. 10. The large and enthusiastic cast “spread their wings and flap their way to glory” in this love letter to musical comedy froth and vaudeville shtick.
“The Producers,” which opened in April 2001, is the story of Max Bialystock, a down on his luck Broadway producer, and Leo Bloom, his “very, very, very unhappy” public accountant, who, during an audit of the books, announced that Max “could make more money with a flop than with a hit.” The original production, based on the 1968 movie of the same name, combined the irreverent comic genius of Mel Brooks with the exquisite timing and physical dexterity of actors Nathan Lane, as the crass Max, and Matthew Broderick as the anxious, whiny Leo Bloom. With Stroman’s inventive choreography, Brooks’ infectiously buoyant score, and a marvelously talented supporting cast, “The Producers” transformed a pastiche of Broadway clichés and unabashedly crude stereotypes (particularly about gays, Germans, and older women) into pure commedia dell’arte. “The Producers” was an enormous hit, and the high demand for tickets helped bring tourists back to New York City after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center.
Theatre By The Sea’s production will look and sound familiar to those who remember the Broadway production. Costumes, based on designs by William Ivey Long, and sets by Kyle Dixon, are reminiscent of the original. The show remains true to what it was: a loving tribute to Broadway and Tin Pan Alley, peppered with countless jokes at the expense of people who are overweight, swishy gay men, and butch lesbians. The highlight of Act II is a production number about the bombing of Europe that’s a valentine to the Ziegfeld Follies. No bit is too campy, offensive or ridiculous to get cut from “The Producers.”
A.G. Parks stands out as the paranoid Franz Liebkind, the Hitler devotee who wrote “Springtime for Hitler.” Dubbed “the worst play ever written” the script is so bad, it all but guarantees Max and Leo’s scheme will make them rich. Parks makes the most of “Der Guten Tag Hop Clop” and the infectious “Haben Sie Gehort Das Deutsche Band?” earning big laughs, even in a week when it was otherwise difficult to see humor in Nazis.
Joel Briel and Richard LaFleur, who play Max and Leo, are joined by the resourceful bombshell Ula, played by Sabrina Harper. All three play to the back of the balcony and go for the broad laughs. At its core, however, “The Producers” is an unabashedly sentimental show about the unlikely friendship that develops between Max and his protégé and surrogate son, Leo, making them both more generous and likable characters. This relationship gets lost in the shtick created for the original stars, because Briel and LaFleur haven’t had a chance to layer their own observational beats into the gags. This makes some of the bits, like Leo taunting Max with “fat, fat, fatty,” fall flat because Briel is svelte and the audience never sees Max being vain or anxious about his weight.
The duo are at their most honest and compelling when they aren’t together: Briel’s best moment is Max’s bitterly funny recap of the show’s plot, spewed from a prison cell when he’s alone after being arrested for bilking his investors. LaFleur’s is when Leo decides to abandon Max and flee to the beaches of Rio with the money and Ula, the woman they both so desired. While powerful, both moments highlight the petty, self-centered parts of the characters, stripping out a sweetness that would help balance the show’s cruder moments.
Briel and LaFleur may have found a stronger sense of Leo and Max’s friendship, and breathed more heart into the production, if the show had hewed less closely to the physical humor developed by Lane and Broderick on Broadway. Hopefully, they’ll find their stride, and the show’s gentler side, now that they have an audience.
“The Producers” runs through Sept. 10. Performances are Tuesdays through Sundays, and tickets cost $46-$72. Tickets are available by phone at 782-8587, online at theatrebythesea.com, or in person at 364 Cards Pond Road, Matunuck.
Looking ahead, Theatre By The Sea’s 2018 season will feature: “Ain’t Misbehavin’,” “Mamma Mia,” “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat,” and “Chicago.”