Monday, Dec. 1, 2008

Rough Impressions of THE PRODUCERS

By Russ Bickerstaff
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The Producers has a strange history in my memory. I vaguely seem to remember being in second or third grade when I first saw Mel Brooks’ original 1968 film on television. It was an independant station that played it quite often, so I saw a number of times. The concept of success through failure seemed remarkably witty to a kid who had spent so much of his spare time watching some particularly bad early ‘80’s sitcoms. I specifically remember falling in love with the line, “Where did I go right?”—a phrase which quickly passed into cliché somewhere in my memory.   

It wasn’t until much later that the story crawled its way back into my mind’s center stage. In 2001, the Mel Brooks/Thomas Meehan musical had opened on Broadway and I was working in the sales office of the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra. There were two or three people working in the sales office who were far more into this film than I was—evidently even before it had hit Broadway, the film had achieved a kind of cult status with a certain group of people. It was not uncommon to hear lines from the film quoted in passing around the MSO sales office in the early mornings during the fall of 2001. Since then, I’d meant to see the musical on a number of different occasions, narrowly missing at least one touring production and the 2005 film adaptation of the musical.

This past weekend, The Skylight opened its production of the Brooks/Meehan Broadway blockbuster and I finally had the opportunity to see it. I was somewhat surprised to discover that the musical itself is not a bad riff on the original film. It faithfully adapts much of the story—somewhat gracefully twisting it into musical theatre as necessary. In its new format, it only loses a bit of what made it such appealing cinema to a kid watching it on TV in the early ‘80’s. The flow of the story is swift and energetic. All the best lines and moments from the film are there. It lso borrows a gag from Young Frankenstien and makes casual reference to a popular line from The History of the World.

For its part, The Skylight has put together an exceedingly competent staging of the musical complete with some truly inspired comic moments. Skylight Artistic Director Bill Thiesen is clearly having a good time onstage in the role of Max Bialystock—the slimy, down on his luck Broadway producer who is forced to work as a gigolo to pay the bills. Thiesen’s robust presence goes a long way toward anchoring a rather large production that could easily get lost in the populous details of what appears to be a very well funded production. Milwaukee Rep resident Actor Brian Vaughn makes his Skylight debut in the role of Leo Bloom: the accountant who dreams of being a producer. Vaughn proves to be a natural fit for musical theatre, but this comes as little surprise to anyone whose read his bio in Footlights over the years. This guy is a seasoned actor with a long history in a number of different theatrical forms including an extended stint doing Shakespeare in Utah. His performance here is well balanced between comedy and musical ability. His timing is excellent. The only problem I have with his performance is . . . in a role so closely associated with Gene Wilder for a great many people, it’s difficult to look at anyone else without making a comparison. Anyone familiar with his darkly trippy performance in one particular Willy Wonka scene can attest to the fact that Wilder had quietly psychologically unhinged dynamic that plays remarkably well onscreen. The slight madness of Bloom which was so brilliantly embodied in Wilder’s performance gets glossed-over here. Bloom’s bit of madness with the scrap of security blanket comes across quite comically in Vaughn’s performance, but it lacks the kind of earnest madness I seem to remember Wilder portraying in the film. This could add  terribly clever edge to the comedy of the musical, particularly as Bloom has something like a psychotic fugue of a fantasy that leads to a big I Wanna Be A Producer song and dance number.

Any other quibbles I may have had with individual performances are relatively minor. It’s always nice to see Molly Rhode in anything and here she’s doing a relatively traditional romantic comedy role and doing it quite well. I was really happy to hear that Jonathan West was going to be in the production given his history with the late locally-based Bialystock and Bloom theatre company (which, for  the last time, pre-dated the musical by a good many years.) Having seen West in local B&B shows over the years, I’ve come to realize that I’d always sort of subconsciously pictured him as a local version of Max Bialystock, so seeing him as the mentally imbalanced author of Springtime For Hitler seems a bit out of place . . . not that Thiesen underperformed in the role at all—it just feels a bit out of place given my longtime subconscious association with West in the role.   

Just as expected from having seen concept sketches, the costuming here is phenomenal. Given the opportunity to get absolutely ridiculous with the costuming for Springtime for Hitler, designer Susan Branch Towne really delivered. Between the play-within-play costuming and and apparel designed for Hitler director Roger DeBris (played with impressive reserve by Ray Jivoff) Susan Branch Towne’s costuming here is easily the most impressive of the season. Given what the rest of the season looks like, it may be difficult for any costume designer to have the opportunity to do anything quite this dazzling until next year.

Brandon Ribordy’s set design is a clever study in doing more with less. Bialystock’s office is represented by a desk and a couch being wheeled out on the floor and a window and a few posters being lowered from the ceiling. The Hitler set looked every bit as big as it needed to be, mirroring the ostentatious set representing DeBris’ home.

The Skylight’s production of The Producers runs through January 4th. A much more concise review of the production runs in this week’s Shepherd-Express.

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