Monday, April 25, 2016

Max Laughs at Mercury: 15 Years On, The Producers Still Produces Musical Comedy Delight -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

The Producers
Mercury Theater, Chicago
Thru June 26

Ever since I first saw Mel Brooks' The Producers, starring Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick, on a pre-Broadway run at Chicago's Cadillac Palace Theatre in Feburary 2001, I have consistently called it my favorite stage musical of all-time

This opinion has held, and been strengthened, through seeing The Producers live now a total of 14 times, including on Broadway with Lane/Broderick, in Hollywood with Jason Alexander/Martin Short, in London with Lane/Lee Evans, again on Broadway with Richard Kind/Roger Bart, on national tours in Chicago, Cleveland and Aurora, in regional productions at Marriott Theatre in Lincolnshire and Theatre at the Center in Munster, in a community theater production in Wilmette, in an intimate production by NightBlue Performing Arts Company last September and now in another local professional staging at Chicago's Mercury Theatre. 

But while never wavering from my opinion that The Producers is my favorite stage musical (I've also seen both the non-musical and musical movies), I've frequently felt compelled to stipulate that West Side Story, My Fair Lady, Les Miserables, Fiddler on the Roof, The Sound of Music and Cabaret--not necessarily in that order and perhaps including a few others--are probably better musicals. 

While none has entertained me more thoroughly than The Producers, these other musicals--all of which I love--have greater thematic heft and are more chock full of brilliant, classic show tunes. 

But especially in again appreciating how richly The Producers delights, 15 years down the theatrical life-cycle, devoid of star names, and not just for its hilarity but with several terrific songs, characters and production numbers--AND some slyly meaningful messaging underneath--perhaps it's time for me to quit with the caveats. 

I know every line, lyric and gag in The Producers, and still LOL'ed a number of times, while loving hearing all the hearty guffaws of audience members, many who may have been coming upon Mel Brooks' musical masterpiece for the first time (he is credited for writing all the music & lyrics, as well as co-writing the book with Thomas Meehan).

And I had a smile on my face the entire time, abetted by wonderful performances by the local actors playing Max Bialystock (Bill Larkin) and Leo Bloom (Matt Crowle). 

This is, after all, a musical that won the most Tony Awards ever--12--and ran on Broadway for 6 years. I'm obviously not the only one who loves The Producers, so who am I to say it isn't the "best musical ever" just because nobody is killed or persecuted in it. 

Director L. Walter Stearns, who runs the Mercury Theatre, is to be commended for putting together a pretty robust rendition of a show that involves numerous scenes, substantial characters, sets, costumes, etc.

I really enjoyed Larkin's take on Max, a bit less overtly wry than most, but extremely good, and with wonderful facial and physical comedic gestures, Crowle is among the best Leos I've ever seen.

But the producers in The Producers are only the beginning, as they set out to find the worst play ever written to "make more money with a flop than with a hit."

I found Harter Clingman especially good as playwright Franz Liebkind, while Jason Richards as theatrical director Roger DeBris, Sawyer Smith as his common law assistant Carmen Ghia and Allison Sill as Swedish actress (and Leo & Max's office assistant) Ulla also do nice work.

Though sizable for the venue, the cast is smaller than I've seen but its quality is strong.

So such great numbers as Max's "The King of Broadway," Leo's "I Wanna Be a Producer," the pair's "We Can Do It" and showpieces for Franz, Roger (and his production team), Ulla and the elderly ladies who are Max's longtime financial backers are truly delectable.

Most of the sight gags and choreography from Susan Stroman's original staging are replicated here--including the single funniest dance routine I've ever seen--and both those who love The Producers and especially those who have never seen it onstage should avail themselves of the Mercury's fine and affordable production. (Check HotTix and Goldstar for discounts.)

While my praise for this rendition is considerable, and I don't feel it cheats the original in any substantive way, as something of a self-proclaimed Producersologist, there are a few small elements I noticed missing, some of the scenery is clearly flimsy and I seem to recall NightBlue doing an even more imaginative job last year in an even smaller space with many fewer performances.

But Stearns, scenic designer Jeffrey D. Kmiec and company also add some nice touches I haven't seen before, including newly humorous Times Square signs, a "key change" gag (look for it) and some dance formations which cleverly alleviate some budgetary sacrifices.

Larkin's ad lib shtick during Act II's "Betrayed" is also among the funniest I've ever seen.

So although I can't say this is among the very best Producers productions I've ever seen, it was more than good enough to make this show an absolute delight yet again--and in especially doing so on the night Prince's stunning death was top of mind, its artistic merits shouldn't be understated.

I'm also happy to report that my mom and sister, who have seen The Producers previously but much less recently or often than I, were even more greatly wowed anew.

And as noted above, the crowd's laughter was as prevalent as at any theatrical performance I've ever seen besides those of what well may be...

...the very best stage musical of all-time.

At least to me.

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