By Patrick O’Brien
You’ll know you’ve scored with your production of The Producers when the audience is actively cheering on Adolf Hitler’s Broadway blitzkrieg. At the Paramount in Aurora on opening night, the applause for “Springtime for Hitler” could’ve conquered France handily.
Only Mel Brooks, America’s no-tastemaker, could pull off a magic trick like that, and he’s been pulling it off since 1967, when he pointed and laughed at the Third Reich just as much as he did at the showbiz amorality that saw nothing wrong with the idea of a new neo-Nazi musical. Of course, it helps to remember said musical is merely a front by shyster producer Max Bialystock and accountant-cum-shyster producer Leo Bloom to exploit a loophole in tax law that would make a Broadway flop more profitable than a hit. In other words, it’s all in good fun.
And what fun — in 2001, Brooks and fellow scribe Tom Meehan transformed that little cult movie that could into a landmark musical comedy that, even after nearly 20 years, has always had big shoes to fill. Not just because the inseparable Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick are baked into the material, but director/choreographer Susan Stroman’s genius is equally inseparable, throwing everything at the wall from tap-dancing grannies to Busby Berkeley swastika dances.
But if, as theorized, comedy relies on surprise, somebody would eventually have to come along and give all the gags a tune-up. It wouldn’t just take genius to find new surprises within this material; it would take real chutzpah. Jim Corti and Brenda Didier, as director and choreographer, respectively, deliver on both fronts and all without compromising Brooks’s gleeful anarchy. Without revealing too much: whoda thunk you could replace tapping walkers with martini shakers?
And with their production team they’ve built themselves a colorful, saturated playground for maximum rumpusing. (William Boles’s scenery is equal parts vintage print ads, Broadway trivia, and a game of spot-the-pigeon.)
Some of the surprise extends to the characters, too. Don’t worry, Blake Hammond’s Max Bialystock is still surly and conniving but lovable; Elyse Collier’s Ulla is still winsome and self-possessed; Ron E. Rain’s Franz Liebkind is still only vaguely aware that World War II ended a while ago and that he lost. But whoda thunk one could play Leo Bloom not as a nebbish with his nose in the books, but as a guy halfway to la-la-land already? In this regard, Jake Morrissy’s turn as Bloom might actually be the biggest surprise of the production, for the sheer act of escaping Broderick’s shadow. Actually, he might be neck-and-neck with Sean Blake’s gay little spin as Roger deBris, which confirms a long-dormant suspicion and ought to set a new precedent: we need more black Hitlers in our Producers.
It’s big; it’s bright; it’s colorful; it’s got a full orchestra led by Tom Vendafreddo; and we all need a laugh. If you haven’t already in 20 years, take a chance on America’s prime equal-opportunity offender. If you have—repeatedly, perhaps—it turns out there’s more to The Producers than there is to The Producers.
Paramount Theatre presents “The Producers” through March 17 at 23 E Galena Blvd, Aurora. More information and tickets are available here.