Paper Mill Playhouse kicks off its 2016-2017 season with the Mel Brooks’ masterpiece “The Producers.” Though the season was planned well in advance, I had many thoughts of Gene Wilder, the first Leo Bloom, whom I am certain was enjoying the show from a very special seat.
Director Don Stephenson knows a great deal about the show–he starred as Leo Bloom on Broadway! He recreates Susan Stroman’s original direction and a neat feat is that Paper Mill was instrumental early in Stroman’s career, when she worked there, and now returns the favor by sitting on the company’s advisory board. Theatre people are EVERYWHERE!
Mel Brooks’ music and lyrics are part of our national fabric and the sheer absurdity of “Springtime for Hitler” is classically ironic comic genius. Launching the show around Rosh Hashanah, putting a bit of joy into a New Year, is also inspired. Taking tragedy and creating comedy is something Brooks does with panache and perhaps I’m reading too much into it, but this celebration of the individual, with the interpolated absurdist play about regimentation and group-think, is one for the ages. It’s also an interesting vest-pocket though heading into the election season.
Michael Kostroff is the deviously gifted Max Bialystock, who has the gift for turning gold into lead. He’s such a charming devil, however, that elderly Angels keep writing those “checkies,” while he services their whims. He is as craft as he is charming, which is saying a lot, and when he meets David Josefsburg’s Leo Bloom, there should be a pause in the rotation of the Earth. But neither knows it on first meeting…
Inspiration comes from everywhere and Leo takes something that Max says and reverses Max’s alchemy. All they need to do is create the worst show ever to make a fortune! So that’s what they do.
Ashley Spencer’s Ulla is a gifted dancer and singer and Ulla captures the heart of Leo, and some other aspect of Max. She puts the right amount of “sin” into scintillating to bring out Leo’s lion, setting the stage for future she-nanigans that includes a surprise cameo—see the show. Josefsburg’s Leo literally blooms, transforming from a nebbish to a fully actualized man, who becomes a different kind of inspiration to Max. Add to this that Josefsburg’s physical comedy is a workout in itself and you have a flavor of the energy of the show.
John Treacy Egan is always a treat to watch and especially as he’s mugging and moue-ing through Franz Liebkind’s manic undying love for Adolf. He is a sublime character who gives humanity to a role that could easily become two-dimensional. Kevin Pariseau’s Roger DeBris is louche and lively, by turns gamine, then burly, then burlesque. Carmen Ghia in the hands of Mark Price is a wicked, wicked “assistant,” who knows how to crack the whip and get things done. Carmen serves attitude in new ways that you’ll remember long after leaving the theatre.
There is a game of leapfrog going on among a number of the actors in the ensemble, but especially by Scott Cote, Jesse Carrey-Beaver, Madeleine Doherty, and Jessica Sheridan. Doherty has a delicious recurring role as Hold-me Touch-me, the prime Angel for Max's benighted productions. She also pops up later on, if you’re sharp. Cote, Carrey-Beaver, and Sheridan are whirling dervishes who change characters as swiftly as we change socks. Carrey-Beavers Blind Violinist is a hoot, as is Cote’s Mr. Marks contrast with his Kevin, later in the show. Sheridan’s straggling Showgirl and especially her Shirley are thoroughly enjoyable.
I found myself laughing over and over again at the antics in this lively performance. Sight gags abound and Pariseau’s face, as he’s Hitler, channeling Audrey Hepburn, is brilliant. Catch fire and see “The Producers” today.
“The Producers” runs through October 23 at 22 Brookside Drive, in Millburn, New Jersey. See it early, see it often. Visit www.papermill.org
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