Perfect timing for San Diego Musical Theatre’s production of The Producers. Recently, Mel Brooks received the National Medal of Arts from President Barack Obama. Even at such a serious event, Brooks showcased his sense of humor by pretending to pull down Obama’s pants. One of the best ways that San Diegans can celebrate and appreciate his achievement is to watch his hit adaptation of the 1968 comedy film at the Spreckels Theatre.
Taking place in Manhattan, 1959, a has-been producer, Max Bialystock (John Massey) struggles to be “The King of Broadway.” He comes up with a sure-fire scheme after his new accountant, Leo Bloom (Bryan Banville), informs him that a producer can make lots of money after investing in a bomb. The two of them soon agree to back a slam-dunk disastrous catastrophe, Springtime for Hitler.
On paper, the premise sounds like a cringe inducing and insultingly shocking plot. Yet, the narrative never really offends, because Brooks consistently pokes fun at the disgusting nature of the fictitious show. He acknowledges on more than a couple of occasions that no one in their right mind would want to watch an earnest and positive tribute to Adolf Hitler.
Brooks’ musical numbers and dialogue, co-written by Thomas Meehan, keep the jokes rolling starting with the first big song, “Opening Night,” until the end. Not a scene goes by without at least a couple of big punchlines or hilarious visual moments.
As with the strongest Brooks’ movies, the gags range from lowbrow dialogue to quips that are surprisingly thoughtful. Some of the funniest lines manage to be both, at the same time, like a raunchy reference of one of Eugene O’Neill’s famous plays.
The Producers needs an artist who can capture Brooks’ comedic style, and director, Jamie Torcellini does not let us down. He knows how to hold the audience’s attention, for nearly three hours, with the evolving friendship between the unlikely crooks.
Massey and Banville make for an old-fashioned odd couple pairing. The former displays loud authoritative confidence while the latter is neurotic and often uncomfortably nervous. Eventually, they form a bromance that ends up being the emotional center of the night. Their warm singing in tunes like “We Can Do It,” “I Wanna be a Producer (Reprise)” and “Til Him” depict different stages of their bond in upbeat ways. Both Massey and Banville take the camaraderie seriously, which only adds to the comical eve.
The producers that star in The Producers might be the leads, but there are plenty of other oddball characters to watch. Lance Carter, Luke Harvey Jacobs, Russell Garrett and Siri Hafso give colorful performances that contribute to the high energy of the interpretation.
In early scenes, Christopher Murillo’s set and Beth Connelly’s costumes do not seem far removed from vintage musicals like Guys and Dolls and How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. By the time Max and Leo meet the neo-Nazi writer, Franz Liebkind (Carter), the visuals onstage become edgier and stranger than the majority of 1950’s and early 1960’s Broadway hits.
Michael Von Hoffman’s lighting add to faux dramatic melodies sung by Max. “The King of Broadway” and “Betrayed” give Max a chance to express the different kinds of frustrations that he has in life.
Janet Renslow’s choreography follows the “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” rule by including a good amount of Susan Stroman’s original dancing. Her moves on “Der Guten Tag Hop-Clop,” “Along Came Bialy” and “Hail Myself,” are often likably absurd.
SDMT regular, Don Le Master, conducts the orchestra to tunes that harken back to an earlier period of entertainment. Le Master assuredly leads the musicians in relaxing duets and massive group numbers.
Regarding nitpicks, Kevin Anthenill’s miking suffered from technical issues in the first couple of sequences. Problems with the miking will likely stop as the run progresses. To his credit, Anthenill’s audio choices are pretty seamless.
The Producers manages to match the high laugh count of the original source material. This rendition is further evidence that Brooks is truly a king of comedy.