I had the pleasure of attending an hysterical opening night performance of THE PRODUCERS at the Players Club of Swarthmore. This is the first musical of their 100th season, and the playbill remarkably notes that it’s their 757th production overall. (I wonder who had the fun job of counting that out…)
THE PRODUCERS, a 2001 musical adaptation of the 1968 Mel Brooks film, tells the amusing tale of a pair of loveable bumblers as they attempt a simple 5-step plan to wealth. Their goal is to put on the biggest flop Broadway has ever seen. The reason? Since nobody cares about recovering financing from a stage disaster, they’ll get to pocket the difference of what they raised and what they spent. It’s a silly concept, but it absolutely works in the context of the show, which requires very little from the audience other than to sit back and enjoy. You should be laughing every ten seconds, and Players Club conquers this challenge with some truly hilarious performances.
First off, David T. Wills absolutely nails the uproarious role of Max Bialystock, the washed up New York producer who has put on stage some of the worst musicals imaginable. Wills demonstrates an impressive acting range as he juxtaposes the character’s “bigger than life” displays of grandiosity with his punchline asides. This is a dream role for any comic actor, and Wills obviously has done his homework. His number near the end of Act II where he speedily recounts the entire show up to that point (including intermission) is a delight.
Also noteworthy is Brendan Sheehan as Leo Bloom, the meek accountant who has secret aspirations to be a Broadway producer. In many ways, the quiet and good-hearted Bloom is the opposite of Bialystock, and Sheehan gets it right. His chemistry with Wills is spot on. He hits all the right notes, literally and figuratively—while all the voices in the show excel, Sheehan’s is particularly striking. One thing I didn’t care for was his routine of pausing shyly before he delivers a line. It was funny the first three times, but then it just became repetitive, slowing down the pace of a show that needs to keep driving forward.
The supporting roles similarly shine. Carrie Share breathes life and laughter into Ulla, Bialystock and Bloom’s wide-eyed Swedish “secretary slash receptionist”. Paul Kerrigan captures each comical idiosyncrasy as the Fuhrer-loving playwright with a tender side, Franz Liebkind. Sean Murray and Randino Del Rosario provide additional laughs as Roger Debris, the worst director in New York, and Carmen, his “common law assistant”, respectively.
Other production elements impress as well. The energetic choreography is top-notch, especially the tap-dancing. Director Darrin Peters has pushed his brilliant ensemble to its limit with dazzling success. (On that note, I imagine it must be a blast being in the ensemble of a show as irreverent as THE PRODUCERS, where one minute you play a dirty old lady and the next you’re a singing Nazi stormtrooper.) The intricate set, lighting and costume design are equally stunning. And it was nice to have a live orchestra (the last musical I saw at the Players Club used “canned music”), although a percussionist was sorely missed.
There were a couple pitfalls that reminded me I was not watching a professional show. First is the run-time. This Players Club production clocks in at a whopping 3 hours and 20 minutes, the longest musical I’ve seen in recent (and distant) memory. I checked, and yep…it runs longer than James Cameron’s Titanic. Granted, THE PRODUCERS is not a short show no matter how you slice it, but I’ve seen other productions that ran far less. I can pinpoint the culprit right now: scene changes. Numerous times the audience sat for nearly a minute while the show ground to a halt and the set laboriously moved across the stage. One particular scene change lasted at least three minutes, which the director was wise enough to distract us from with an amusing conga line sequence that stretched into the audience. I understand that long scene changes are the result of having such a complex set, but there must have been a happy medium in there somewhere. Fortunately, with all the laughs, the length of the show is not as noticeable as it could have been.
One issue that seems like it could be easily fixed were the microphone problems that occasionally marred the production. There appear to be two malfunctioning mics worn by, among others, the two talented singing ushers at the top of the show. Their mics didn’t work more often than they did, either cutting out or creating loud bursts of static. Luckily, the mics for the principals operated flawlessly. But this made me wonder why the cast didn’t swap mics throughout instead of using the two flawed ones, or simply not mic the ensemble?
I’m only being picky because the professional caliber of Players Club’s production demands it. All involved should be praised for putting on a thoroughly entertaining display of a very technically difficult show, and the cast earned the standing ovation it received. Whether you’re a fan of THE PRODUCERS or have never seen it, I recommend that you reserve your tickets now, as I’m sure word-of-mouth is going to sell out this spirited comedy in no time.
(Editor’s note: Stay tuned for Lila Achuff’s “SHE SAID” review of this production!)
Book by Thomas Meehan & Mel Brooks
Music & Lyrics by Mel Brooks
Directed by Darrin Peters
October 22 – November 6, 2010
Players Club of Swarthmore
614 Fairview Road