At the Paramount Theatre
By Dan Zeff
Aurora–The critical verdict of the Paramount Theatre revival of “The Producers” can be summarized in one terse sentence. It’s impossible to imagine the show done any better.
The triumph at the Paramount is blend of creative staging, terrific performances, and superior design, all joyously in the service of the classic original Mel Brooks musical. Brooks co-wrote the book with Thomas Meehan and composed he score and lyrics solo. The Brooks hat trick must rank as one of the great artistic achievements in modern American theater, though spectators may be forgiven for spending so much time laughing that they neglect to give credit to the brilliance of the Brooks achievement.
The plot revolves around the machinations of bombastic Broadway producer Max Bialystock to rebuild his career as a hit maker. He forms an unlikely alliance with a neurotic accountant named Leo Bloom to collect millions of dollars from investors to stage a show, deliberately picking a flop that would wipe out the investor but keeping the invested millions for themselves. The scheme seems so foolproof that one wonders why it hasn’t been attempted on Broadway, or maybe it has. Broadway certainly hasn’t lacked for shows that opened and closed almost simultaneously.
Much of the show centers on Max’s search for a guaranteed flop, and he and Leo discover a can’t miss dud in a musical called “Springtime for Hitler,” composed by a German Nazi and Hitler idolater named Franz Liebkind, now raising pigeons in Greenwich Village. The vulgarity and bad taste of Liebkind’s writing surpasses Max’s wildest dreams and he and Leo set about preparing a production as misguided as the hideousness of the script.
The partners lure an extravagantly inept director named Roger DeBris to direct, supported by a cartoon gay blade named Carmen Ghia and a troop of no-talent designers. Opening night arrives and Max and Leo gleefully anticipate their riches after the show closes in obloquy, except that….
A show like “The Producers” does not succeed by employing half measures. The bad taste and vulgarity symbolized by “Springtime for Hitler” resound throughout the evening, but it’s bad taste and vulgarity of such hilarity that the viewer happily surrenders to the Brooks wit and satire and sheer effrontery, no matter what the spectator’s ethnic or racial back ground, sexual preference, or religion.
The Paramount triumph is the work of many hands, onstage and behind the scenes. Presiding over the show’s glories, as he has so many times at the Paramount, is artistic director Jim Corti. He casts Chicagoland theater veteran Blake Hammond as Max. Hammond looks funny, a kind of short Oliver Hardy, with a fine singing voice, a nimble dancing style, and the delicious comic presence of a man who was born to cheat and connive. Hammond is matched with Jake Morrissy, the best Leo Bloom I have ever seen. Morrissy not only captures Leo’s manic neurotic tics, be sings well, dances terrifically, and his acting elevates Leo into more than a cartoon nutcase.
The scene stealer of the show (and almost every scene is ripe to be stolen) is Elyse Collier, who plays Ulla, a stereotyped Swedish sexpot bimbo, except that Collier’s Ulla sings and dances like a star and her sexiness is beyond scrumptious. Sean Blake is Roger DeBris, the extravagantly artsy director, matched with Adam Fane, whose outrageous swishiness can create a strong breeze all the way to the back of the theater. Ron Rains plays Franz Liebkind like a Nazi true believer, maybe the most high risk role in the show but also one of the funniest.
The chorus seems to change costume every 90 seconds but what remains constant is their enthusiasm, their dancing skill, and their singing. Gold spangles never looked better on a line of precision dancing ladies.
Corti has not only assembled and masterfully orchestrated a splendid ensemble, he has gathered a group of designers who put their collective stamp on a physical production that is gaudy, inventive, and funny, fully utilizing the Paramount technical facilities to give audiences one knockout visual scene after another. The masterminds of this visual and aural feast include William Boles (set design), Jordan Ross (costumes), Jesse Klug (lighting), Adam Rosenthal (sound), and Mike Tutaj (projections). We surely will hear several of those names again come Jeff Awards time.
Unlimited praise goes to Brenda Didier for her choreography, some of it based on previous stagings of “The Producers” and much of it original, like the first act finale. The dances are loaded with in jokes, like references to “A Chorus Line,” Fred and Ginger duets, Busby Berkeley, “Singing in the Rain,” and even the Moderaires of the Big Band era. Yes, “The Producers” cheerfully incorporates ideas from earlier musical theater, but it’s not plagiarism when it works so delightfully.
A company can’t put on a show like “The Producers” on the cheap. The budget for costumes and special effects and the large cast must be daunting, but every Paramount dollar is well spent. A production could skimp on musicians, employing a few electrified instrumentalists to simulate a full orchestra. But the Paramount employs a 21-piece pit orchestra of the highest professional caliber, flawlessly directed by Tom Vendafreddo.
Well, one could go on and on itemizing the pleasures of this revival, but you get the idea. This is a technically complex show behind all the seemingly effortless musical production numbers and skitlike dialogue. Many people will enter the Paramount with previous versions in their playgoing experience. These people will be reacquainted with how brilliant the Mel Brooks classic remains and discover new flourishes that will freshen their enjoyment. As for people seeing the show for the first time, all one can say is “Lucky you!”
The show gets a rating of
“The Producers” runs through March 17 at the Paramount Theatre, 23 East Galena Boulevard. Performances are Wednesday at 1:30 and 7 p.m., Thursday at 7 p.m., Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 3 and 8 p.m., and Sunday at 1 and 5:30 p.m. Tickets are $36 to $69. Call 630 896 6666 or visit www.ParamountAurora.com
Contact Dan at ZeffDaniel@yahoo.com. February 2019
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