Worried about how well the Flat Rock Playhouse can handle Mel Brooks’ 2001 musical version of his 1969 film, The Producers? Relax, and celebrate. The original movie (which won an Academy Award for best screenplay), its stage incarnation (which created a profound upward pressure on Broadway ticket prices and won 12 Tony Awards, the most in musical-theatre history), and, to a lesser extent, the 2005 film of the musical are hard acts to follow.
But with its pitch-perfect direction by Paige Posey of a terrific cast of 30 and an orchestra of 14, and more sets than it seems possible could fit onto this venerable stage, the Flat Rock Producers is nothing short of spectacular.
Those familiar with earlier incarnations of this delightfully preposterous story of a scheme to earn millions by producing the worst show ever, Springtime for Hitler, as badly as possible, may wonder if other actors can function properly in the shadow of Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder, and Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick, who played the leads in the film, and in the stage and screen versions of the musical, respectively.
No problem here, either: the role of Max Bialystock, the experienced producer whose musical Hamlet closes on opening night, thus setting the plot in motion, has generally been played as larger-than-life, but the gifted Lenny Wolpe at Flat Rock manages the neat trick of making Bialystock just a little more human, and just as enjoyable.
Austin Owen as the accountant and would-be producer, Leo Bloom, looks a little like Broderick and, in the very funny early going, may adapt certain mannerisms created by Wilder, but he has a presence, voice, and charm that make the part his own. Mark Ludden as the Nazi-mad author of Springtime, Preston Dyar as the ultra-gay director-cum-star Roger Debris, Jamison Stern as Debris’s still-more-gay lover and assistant, Carmen Ghia, and Lauren Pastorek as actress and assistant to the producers, the Swedish bombshell Ulla, all give performances as large and flirtatious with vulgarity and offensiveness as Brooks might wish. The huge supporting cast also shines, in each cameo and as an ensemble.
Ordinarily, one doesn’t look to sets, costumes and props as major markers of success; but, in this instance, each adds significant, eye-popping pleasure to the event. The musicians (several of whom come from the Hendersonville High School band) do splendidly, and the vocals, as has been true at Flat Rock throughout the season, are quite strong. Even the choreography is well executed, though it isn’t as rich with invention as one might wish. The infamous walker number, as derived from the Stroman original, wins its laughs handily.
Lovers of the Mostel-Wilder film will not likely appreciate the inevitable softening of the satirical edge. There’s much more music and sentiment to the stage vehicle, and there are a few additional jokes which speak even more loudly to Brooks’ Borsht Belt origins as a performer, which bring this work more into line with standard Broadway fare than with the film, which was considered too outrageous in its time for wide release. (Obscenity watchers, please note: one “asshole” brought gasps at Flat Rock.) Brooks’ new music and lyrics are curious, too; Brooks is a natural melody-maker, and if his lyrics are more given to lists than sonority, they’re still more than effective enough to deserve the Tony Brooks won for writing them.
But The Producers feels like a show from another time, perhaps from the era of the great Busby Berkeley movie musicals of Brooks’ young manhood. There’s nothing wrong with that. Would-be viewers should just be aware that Brooks’ bite was stronger when he wrote for Sid Caesar, created the 2000 Year Old Man with Carl Reiner, in the movies of his heyday, and even in the TV series he created with Buck Henry, Get Smart. “Funny is money,” Brooks has always liked to say, and with the musical The Producers, he proved it.
The Producers, book by Mel Brooks and Thomas Meehan, music and lyrics by Mel Brooks, original direction and choreography by Susan Stroman. Directed by Paige Posey. $40. Through August 15 at Flat Rock Playhouse. (828) 693-0731 or http://www.flatrockplayhouse.org.
Scenic Design: Dennis C. Maulden. Costume Design: Janine McCabe. Lighting Design: Todd O. Wren. Sound Design: Allen Sanders. Properties Master: Paul Feraldi. Casting Director and Artistic Consultant: Dave Clemmons. Vocal Direction and Choreography: Amy Elizabeth Jones. Musical Direction: George Wilkins, Jr. Assistant Choreographer: Lauren Rogers. Dance Captain: Amy Elizabeth Jones. Technical Director: Bruce R. Bailey. Production Stage Manager: Bill Muñoz.
With Lenny Wolpe (Max Bialystock), Austin Owen (Leo Bloom), Mark Ludden (Franz Liebkind), Jamison Stern (Carmen Ghia), Preston Dyar (Roger Debris), and Lauren Pastorek (Ulla), and Kristi Ambrosetti, Taela Naomi Brooks, Lisa K. Bryant, Erik J. Christensen, Damian Duke Domingue, Arielle Fears, Matthew Glover, Adrienne Griffiths, Jyreika Guest, Casey Hebbel, Charlie Johnson, Terrance Johnson, Amy Elizabeth Jones, Clark Kinkade, Ivory McKay, Regan McLellan, Matthew Meigs, Lindsay Nantz, Renee Reinecke, Blake Rogers, Anne Marie Snyder, Jessica Threet, Sean Watkins, and James Wells (Ensemble).
Conductor and pianist: George Wilkins, Jr. With Anthony Ammons (French horn), Scott Ashcraft (trombone), Paul Babelay (drums), Alex Cantwell (reeds), Ralph Congdon (violin), Grant Cuthbertson (bass), Matt Foglia (keyboard 2), Cameron Hahn (percussion), Taylor Heery (flute), Joel Helfand (saxes, woodwinds), Gary Leming (trumpet 1), Sean Smith (trombone), and Rich Willey (trumpet 2).