Michael Brindisi’s production of Mel Brooks’ The Producers at Chanhassen Dinner Theatre deserves to be seen, if for no other reason than Jay Albright’s Max Bialystock. There are plenty of other reasons, but Albright, a perennial second banana, takes full advantage of his chance to play the lead and delivers a true star turn.
I’ll admit, I’ve always been prejudiced against the musical version of The Producers. First of all, the original Zero Mostel/Gene Wilder film is such a classic. How do you improve on perfection? And Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick could never emerge from the shadows of their predecessors. It was disconcerting to hear echoes of the original line readings in their performances.
Even more, there is no way that the original production deserved the record number of Tony Awards that it received. And it didn’t. It benefited from a kind of mass hysteria that overlooked the corny and frequently tired old gags.
But Brindisi’s direction redeems the material. He makes it seem much less superficial than it initially appears. This is a man with a true passion for classic musicals, and he treats this show as if it were one of the best, with genuine affection and not a whit of condescension. And the production’s energy and infectious high spirits are almost enough. What’s more, Brindisi is absolutely shameless; there is no gag too low that he won’t stoop to it. Which is exactly what this material needs.
In Albright, Brindisi has his perfect partner. The actor makes this sleazy Broadway producer—who raises 1,000% of production costs and then plans to stage a surefire flop, “the gay romp,” Springtime for Hitler, and pocket the excess—into a genuine a tour de force.
He is best in his solo moments, when he can demonstrate his flawless timing unimpeded. And no one can mug like Albright. When the avaricious Max is encouraged to give money back, his wordless reaction goes on for more than a few hysterical moments. And then he still gets a laugh on the line! His two-minute recap of the show from his prison cell is a comedic whirlwind.
He has a perfect foil in Robb McKindles’s Leo Bloom, the wimpy, nebbish accountant who actually comes up with the fraud scheme. McKindles is convincing as the nerd, but he also brings Leo into his own, making him a true romantic hero. McKindles makes “Till Him,” a song honoring his relationship with Max, a moment of genuine emotion. It’s a nice Brindisi touch.
There are so many outrageous bits, it would be impossible to chronicle them all. As if the queer director, in drag, singing “Keep it Gay” wasn't outrageous enough, Brindisi adds an appearance by Village People look-alikes. The song, “That Face,” starts out as a moment of innocent romance between Bloom and the secretary, Ulla. But when reprised, Max sings it directly to Ulla’s ass. I must be careful not to give all the delectable surprises.
But one more. When the director has to step in as the lead (when the star takes the admonition to “break a leg” literally), his consort says, “You’re going out there a screaming queen and coming back a passing-for-straight Broadway star.” It’s a delicious irony that it’s said to David Anthony Brinkley, who said the original of the line very recently in 42nd Street.
This show is the ultimate in political incorrectness. (Anyone with memories of any of Brooks’ movies will not be surprised at that or at the gross-out factor.) From Max dry humping an old lady on the sofa to chorus girls with twirling swastikas at her tits, there is something here to offend everyone. But that’s the whole idea. The point is not to take it too seriously—or better yet, not to take it seriously at all!
Brinkley did his own star turn as the director; he’s unafraid to indulge in over-the-top camp and remarkably confident in drag. And he has great legs! Zoe Pappas, as Ulle, has a great set of pipes, and she takes the dumb-blonde stereotype and makes it fresh and uniquely her own. Scott Blackburn also gets his share of laughs as the Nazi playwright. If only the real Nazis had been that stupid. From top to bottom, the show is cast from strength, even down to Keith Rice’s amusing cameo as Leo’s abusive CPA boss.
Nayna Ramey’s set is serviceable and witty (especially in the way that Brooks’ image keeps turning up). But it is the costumes of Rich Hamson that steal the visual show. From the opulent gowns of the opening night audience to the Germanic chorus girl costumes (two steins strategically placed, not to mention the use of pretzels and sausages), he created the visual equivalent of Brindisi’s outrageous production.
I will admit, I was surprised when I heard that Chanhassen was staging The Producers. The repertoire choices have become increasingly conservative in recent years. It’s nice to see them being a bit more adventurous. Here’s hoping the Chanhassen audience is not turned off by the subject matter and comes out in droves. They will have a delectably good time.
The Producers continues at Chanhassen Dinner Theatres through Jan. 31, 2009.