Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Made From Good Bialystock: Even in Scaled Down Production, the Joys of 'The Producers' Remain in Full Bloom -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

The Producers
NightBlue Performing Arts Company
at Stage 773, Chicago
Thru October 11

No stage show has ever made me as happy as Mel Brooks' The Producers.

And nearly 15 years after I first saw it, early during the musical's pre-Broadway 2001 Chicago run with Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick, then on Broadway shortly after it won a boatload of Tony Awards, in Cleveland early on the first National Tour, in Los Angeles with Jason Alexander and Martin Short, in London with Lane (replacing an injured Richard Dreyfuss) and Lee Evans, on return Chicago engagements, again on Broadway with Richard Kind and Roger Bart, on a tour stop in Aurora, in regional productions in Munster and Lincolnshire, at a community theater in Wilmette and--for the 13th time--just this past weekend in a small but stellar staging by the NightBlue Performing Arts Company at Chicago's Stage 773...

It still does.

Although I believe Les Misérables, West Side Story, The Music Man, My Fair Lady and Cabaret to technically be "better" musicals, The Producers is undoubtedly my favorite.

Not only is it funnier than any musical ever created--and it was delicious to hear abundant exuberant laughter on Saturday from audience members who were presumably hearing each joke and lyric anew--but Mel Brooks not only created a series of fantastic scenes based on his 1968 movie, he wrote several really terrific songs.

Having been so smitten the first time I saw the show--before I had ever seen the movie, in fact--so early in its existence, I've made something of a study (or obsession) of seeing The Producers in various iterations, including the 2005 musical movie.

Though some stagings, and actors, have been better than others--no one has ever quite matched Lane and Broderick--I've enjoyed every version I've seen, including the 2012 community production in Wilmette, which I wrote about as representing the end of the theatrical life-cycle (Pre-Broadway, Broadway, National Tour, London, subsequent-but-still-producer-controlled tours, non-Equity tour, initial regional productions, local productions, community theater productions) short of high school and college versions. And given its ribald nature, I'm not sure how well The Producers would be welcomed within the walls of academia.

Upon noticing a new local staging happening in Chicago, I didn't even take much note. The Producers is, seemingly,  no longer an event when it gets presented, just another work among the great canon of musical theater that troupes of any size, anywhere, can stage upon attaining the rights.

But without other plans on Saturday, when I saw The Producers listed on HotTix (and Goldstar) and found a pretty positive review, I thought "that could be fun."

Boy was it ever.

At the unlikely start time of 4:00pm on a Saturday, within a half-full, roughly 120-seat space in a multi-stage venue, with actors who at 8:00pm would in large part perform in Victor/Victoria (being done in repertory by the same troupe), the NightBlue Performing Arts Company--from whom I've only seen one previous work, which I didn't love--kept me smiling for 2-1/2 straight hours, despite my knowing every line, joke and lyric of a show I've seen, repeatedly, on a far grander scale.

My @@@@@ rating isn't to suggest that the NightBlue staging was as good as I've ever seen The Producers, but that the material holds up wonderfully and I was tremendously impressed by all aspects of this production.

To wit, at intermission, I was sharing with an usher how amazed I was by the stage crew, who rapidly changed the scenery for the musical's myriad scenes.

It really does astonish me, not only the amount of on-stage talent there is in the Chicagoland theater community, but the dedication of musicians and tech crews who likely receive rather sparse remuneration for their estimable efforts.

While Tommy Novak, in playing scheming, down-and-out Broadway producer Max Bialystock, isn't going to make me forget Nathan Lane, he was funny, well-sung and probably more reminiscent of Zero Mostel's take in the original movie than any other Max I've witnessed.

All my Producers' tickets
Although an understudy (for Ryan Stijmiger) as nebbishy accountant Leo Bloom, Casey Hayes was also terrific. His version of "I Wanna Be a Producer" was especially lots of fun.

But beyond the two leads, much of what makes The Producers so great are all the supporting roles that get star turns, as Max and Leo go looking for the worst possible show to produce in order to "make more money with a flop than with a hit" in one of the greatest premises ever devised.

And supported by a rather impressive scenery and costume budget, especially given the small space and repertory run, Cara Chumbley, Andrew Sickel, Billy Dawson and Dominic Rescigno are all strong as Ulla, Franz Liebkind, Roger DeBris and Carmen Ghia (if you don't know who these characters are, that's another reason to see this production).

Several members of the ensemble are also quite distinguished, whether in embodying showgirls, agitated accountants, little old ladies or members of the show-within-the-show, "Springtime for Hitler."

Whether you've seen The Producers or not, and perhaps are wondering if a little local theater company you've never heard of can do it justice on a small scale, as an aficionado I can tell you that not only is the acting, singing, dancing, costumes and scenery impressive, but great scenes such as when Max & Leo meet Franz on his rooftop, when Max visits Little Old Ladyland and the staging of "Springtime for Hitler" with dancers wearing LOL costumes are truly done splendidly.

The crowd's guffaws sounded as rich as I remember my own back in February 2001. (And even if you know all the jokes and gags, the show remains a musical delight, thanks in part to a 6-piece band that also backs Victor/Victoria.)

Yes, I've seen fuller, richer and better renditions of The Producers. But not only was I truly delighted to see it yet again, given how awed as I was by the level of quality and commitment demonstrated by NightBlue's cast and crew in light of spatial and presumed financial constraints, I'm really not sure if my favorite musical of all-time has ever made me any happier.

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