THE AWKWARD CHARM, TO LOVE A NAZI - WITH MEL BROOKS, ‘THE PRODUCERS’ TAKES THE STAGE AT THE HILLBARN
IF THIS WAS WRITTEN DURING OUR “CANCEL” ”ME TOO” CLIMATE MEL BROOKS WOULD HAVE BEEN CANCELED, BUT FOR BROOKS FANS ‘THE PRODUCERS’ IS HYSTERICAL PROOF FUN
Review by Vince Mediaa
Take a wide ride with THE PRODUCERS now on stage at the Hillbarn Theatre and Conservatory through May 14th. Book by Thomas Meehan and music by Mel Brooks this insane, politically incorrect take on Broadway earned 12 Tonys in 2001. The show brought New York back to its feet after 911 and went on to be a successful movie musical with the original Broadway leads Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick. Outgoing Hillbarn Artist Director Randy O’Hara says “These past few years have not been easy on anyone - so why not take a minute to embrace the silly and escape to somewhere more flamboyant and fun”. Director Erica Wyman Abrahamson fresh from her superb performance in PERFECT ARRANGEMENT has assembled a clever talented cast of the Bay's best to bring the “showbiz” farce of Mel Brooks.
Max Bialystock, a flop-ridden Broadway producer and Leo Bloom, a nervous accountant, team up to fraud investors and make a fortune by producing the worst musical in history, a love letter to Hitler written by an unhinged former Nazi. It’s a silly story, but as Brooks makes clear, it doesn’t matter how ridiculous the story is, as long as you give the audience some T and A and big neon lights. Brooks also commented on the political incorrectness of this show “Rhetoric does not get you anywhere, Hitler and Mussolini - if you can bring these people down with comedy they stand no chance.” In a hilarious scene with Max and Leo they remove their nazi armbands as some of the audience cheered and clapped. If this was written during our “Cancel” “MeToo” climate Mel Brooks would be “canceled”. This 2001 script is also unfriendly to our transgender friends.
The two buddies search for their playwright and they meet Franz Liebkind, who lives in the shadow of his hero, Hitler; Bay Area favorite Keith Pinto is over the top as the German eccentric. Pinto’s insane Nazi playwright Franz stops the show when he sings “Der Guten Tag Hop Clop” and “Old Bavaria” with Max and Bloom along with a chorus of scene stealing pigeons. Pinto steals the show with his cage-full of Nazi pigeons. The eccentric Pinto has the perfect heavy accent with songs that infect his body language and choreographer Christopher Childers clever moves.
One of the many hilarious scenes features Hightower and Jones pitching the show to their Queen of Broadway director, Roger Debris, played by the sassy Hillbarn vet John Mannion; perfect in drag. Roger’s camp, flamboyant assistant Carmen Ghia is perfectly performed every “Ssssss” by the superb Jesse Cortez. The constant showstoppers include “Keep it Gay’ featuring Roger Debris and his camp production team is truly one of the highlights of this 2.5 hour musical. Featuring a posse of silly campy actors playing Debris’ wacky staff, Mohamed Ismail, Joe Steely, David Truong, Steve Roma and Ashley Faus.
The wonderful, tall and beautiful Renee DeWeese Moran is the blond bombshell Ula she sings “When You Got It , Flaunt It”. Her sharp voice hypnotizes the two men as she wins them over and later seduces Leo. Moran is polished with her perfect Swedish droll and is pitch perfect funny. Later as a dancer dressed as a stormtrooper Moran is glamorous and marvelous.
Hightower carries this show with his fierce comic timing and over the top shtick. His partner and accountant is the very sweet and enduring neurotic Leo Bloom played by intense James M Jones who will bring you to tears of giggles with his blue Blankie. “I'm in pain and I'm wet and I'm still hysterical!” is the classic line from the original Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder movie that set the “vaudeville like” opening scene when Leo and Max meet. The two sing “We Can Do it” and set the comic pace for the show. Jones is charming and amusing in “I Wanna Be a Producer.” The set in Leo’s accounting office is clever as the calculators on the desks morph into showgirls for Leo’s top hat and cane solo. Set designer Palo Alto Players Kevin Davies tops himself for each major dance number with a turntable rotating stage and life size Roman statues for “Keep it Gay”.
Davies' design is especially perfect and campy for the “Springtime for Hitler” gala opening. Pam Grey’s clever lighting design with plenty of runway lights added a light touch of silliness to keep each scene rich with mood and back-lit show posters. The ensemble cast is superb in “Springtime for Hitler: A Gay Romp with Adolf and Eva in the Berchtesgaden” choreographed by the splendid Christoper Childers - he kept the entire cast busy and brought Susan Stroman’s vision to life on the Foster City stage. Sound designer Sheraj Ragoobeer mixed the pre-recorded soundtrack to blend perfectly with the live actors.
Costumes wigs by Y. Sharon Peng are especially clever as the show girls shine in their sausage gowns, strudel dresses and glitter hats and wigs. The tap dancing Nazis are uncomfortably stylish headed by dance captain Christine Baker, and talented tenor, Steve Roma, who opens the number for the singing Hitler played by John Mannion, who also plays the director. Mannion sings “Springtime for Hitler” with the entire cast as Peng’s unforgettable costumes take the stage.
Music director Rick Reynolds keeps the large cast on cue, the pre-recorded mix never overpowers the cast. The set designer Davies has a small space to fill for this big show, and it is not always easy, but he did make use of tasteful turntable as entrances for actors entered from the audience. This is a huge musical, so Wyman and Childers go big with campy classic dance numbers including “Along Came Bialy” with Max and his little old ladies and their walkers. “I Want To Be A Producer” featuring Jones and the ensemble is a charmer and sets the tone for well produced dance numbers.
Rosie Issel’s many eye-catching props are detailed especially in Max’s office and all the great shtick for the Nazi glamor and the clever chorus of nazi pigeons walking canes and old classic calculators. The talented ensemble is one of the strengths of this production. The depth of talent on stage is awesome. I want to mention the smaller roles that are all impressive; Karen Althoff, Kayvon Kordestani, Reggie Reynolds, Alyson Chilton, Tiffany Jianto, Elana Ron and Jessica Whittemore as “Hold Me Touch Me” senior ladies.The keen Joe Steely, David Troung, Mohamed Ismail fill in as German soldiers.
Wyman’s direction is busy and full throttle, she uses the entire Hillbarn stage to recreate a Broadway look. A good portion of the show takes place in Max’s office that gets a face lift from Ula. It is also humorous when Brooks’ script makes reference to stage direction, as the actors continue to break the fourth wall. The storyline takes a slap at the theatre community and it is very amusing. In the final act Max re-enacts the entire show while he is in jail, breaking the fourth wall as reads the Playbill. It is very witty and never lets us forget that we are watching a musical about a musical.
Hillbarn Theatre Conservatory continues to produce the high caliber of musical theatre for the Peninsula community, and THE PRODUCERS is certainly no exception. The company has “the funny” just right and it is a sure priceless evening of crazy good biting fun by a talented and enthusiastic ensemble. Remember the show is very politically uncorrect. It ends with a comical second musical final in a prison, you do not want this show to end. Leo and Max walk off into the Broadway sunset, and you should as well. THE PRODUCERS is the perfect hit to open the Summer season. Be sure to bring your own hat and cane.
Hillbarn Theatre and Conservatory Presents
Book by Mel Brooks and Thomas Meehan
Music and Lyrics by Mel Brooks
Directed By Erica Wyman-Abrahamson
Music Director: Rick Reynolds
Chorograher Christoper Childers
Now thru May 14th
1285 E. Hillsdale Blvd in Foster City
Two hours and 45 minutes one intermission
Discount tickets at Goldstar.com
Photos courtesy of Mark & Tracy Photography