Thursday, July 23, 2009

Brooks' 'Producers' provides big, bawdy laughs

After eight long years, the Mount Washington Valley is finally getting the opportunity to see Mel Brooks’ gloriously goofy musical “The Producers” as it should be seen: live.

The Mount Washington Valley Theatre Company’s production of “The Producers” will continue its run at the Eastern Slope Inn Playhouse in North Conway, N.H. through Aug. 1.

Brooks’ “Producers” first showed up as his debut film as a writer/director in 1968.
It starred Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder and would go on to win an Oscar for best original screenplay. In 2001, Brooks’ musical version starring Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick made its Broadway debut and would later win a record-breaking 12 Tony Awards

The premise, the same in both the movie and musical, is inspired: a down and out Broadway producer teams up with a meek accountant to cook up a scheme to raise more money than is needed to produce a surefire flop and take the extra money and run.

I saw “The Producers” in London’s Broadway, The West End, and this production absolutely holds up to that big city version, which is impressive given the size of the theater and budget restraints. The show is full of several big, bawdy numbers including the infamous showstopper “Springtime for Hitler” and director Clay James and his cast pull it off.

Throughout his career as a film critic Roger Ebert has shared the following anecdote about Mel Brooks many times. Ebert was sharing an elevator with Brooks a few months after the original “The Producers” film was released. A woman got onto the elevator, recognized Brooks and said, “I have to tell you, Mr. Brooks, that your movie is vulgar.” Brooks smiled and replied “Lady, it rose below vulgarity.”

It is a clever line that perfectly encapsulates the experience of seeing the original film as well as the musical. Sure, “The Producers” is crude and in bad taste but is presented with a certain level of sophistication and wit that allows it to transcend low brow even as it trades in it.

It also helps that it is all delivered with good cheer. The humor, which includes sex jokes, gay jokes, Jew jokes and, naturally, Nazi jokes, is never mean spirited. It is hard to be offended by even the potentially offensive because it is all so amicable.

This cast is absolutely spot-on in getting the tone of the material right. George Piehl, so good last year as Tevye in the Mount Washington Valley Theatre Company’s “Fiddler on the Roof,” is ideally cast as the scheming, boisterous Max Bialystock. Piehl has to be a larger-than-life personality and he is just that. He manages to channel both Mostel and Lane.

Chris Handley is very much Piehl’s equal as timid, high strung Leo Bloom who slowly comes out of his shell under the tutelage of Max. Falling in love with their sexy secretary Ulla (Liz Clark-Golson) certainly helps too. Handley is hilarious in the classic “I’m hysterical” scene. Piehl and Handley have great chemistry.

Grant Golson gets to ham it up in a big way as the gay director turned star of “Springtime for Hitler” as does Thomas Schario as the author of “Springtime” and Ryan Fitzgerald as Golson’s “assistant.” These actors take their supporting roles and run with them stealing scenes whenever they are on stage.

The show is full of great songs that all slightly skewer the traditional musical. Even ballads like “That Face” and “Til Him” are given twists.

Every number is well mounted, but easy highlights include “I Wanna Be a Producer,” “If You’ve Got it Flaunt It,” “Along Came Bialy,” “Der Guten Tag Hop Clop,” “Betrayed” and “Prisoners of Love.” Heck that’s half the show right there.

Those who have seen the flat 2005 film version of the musical may feel they can safely skip this, but they’d be mistaken. Live is the best way to the splendid silliness of this musical comedy gem.

For more information visit or call 356-5776.

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