By Colin Douglas
Winning a record-breaking 12 Tony Awards back in 2001, following a Chicago pre-Broadway tryout, Mel Brooks’ hit musical, The Producers, adapted from his own immensely popular film of the same name, is a nonstop laugh riot.
It tells the story of two producers, Max Bialystock and his accountant Leo Bloom, who conspire to make their fortune by overselling shares in a guaranteed Broadway flop. However, when the show turns out to be an unexpected hit, Bialystock’s first in years, the IRS goes after them and trouble (and comedy) ensues. Filled with fast-paced, unstoppable laughs and delightfully catchy musical numbers, all written by Brooks, this show demands an over-the-top production in order to succeed.
And in the case of the current production from Chicago’s NightBlue Performing Arts Company, succeed it does. This high octane, energetic cast, most of whom play multiple roles, gives the audience their money’s worth. With smooth, speedy costume changes (thanks to David E. Walters’ colorful and varied wardrobe and JoAnn Robertson’s wig creations), this cast transforms itself over and over again while never slowing the pace. The same can be said of G. Max “Maxin” IV’s modest but fluid scenic design that, because of a well-rehearsed cast and crew, manages to change locales in only seconds. In other words, there’s not a single moment of downtime in this expertly directed show.
Of course, the greatest credit goes to David E. Walters for his sharp, supercharged direction. Utilizing every inch of the thrust stage, even incorporating the aisles and upstage walls to maximum advantage, this production hits the ground running and never slows down. And as these young performers continue to astound in this musical, the audience is constantly reminded that they’re also laying it all out there, either as leads or ensemble, in Victor/Victoria, NightBlue’s other big cast musical, playing in repertory on alternate nights. It makes this cast that much more impressive.
The ensemble is led by a dynamo of spirit, spunk and schtick named Tommy Novak. His Max Bialystock, a role created by Zero Mostel and played on Broadway by Nathan Lane, is truly “The King of Broadway,” making seemingly easy work of a demanding role. All of his scenes and songs, performed with nonstop, gatling gun intensity, are well executed, with his tour de force being an hilarious, Act 2 musical recap of the entire show called “Betrayed.”
Novak is matched by Casey Hayes’ restrained portrayal of Leo Bloom, an accountant-turned theatrical producer. The handsome Hayes, it should be noted, was the understudy for this role; but when Ryan Stajmiger, originally cast to play Bloom, was called to Drury Lane to replace an actor in their current production, Hayes went on for him opening night. In true showbiz fashion, Hayes has made the role his own now and is rumored to be playing Leo Bloom for the entire run. The actor has a charming, smooth style and a pleasing voice. His Leo Bloom, while seething with sublimated enthusiasm, provides a nice, calm contrast to Novak’s hyperactive Bialystock. Numbers like “We Can Do It,” “I Wanna Be a Producer” and “Till Him” stand out, because as a musical comedy team, these two are sensational and, really, unstoppable.
This dynamic duo are ably supported by the lovely, Cara Chumbley as Ulla, the Swedish blond bombshell. Chumbley, although not as statuesque as others who’ve played this role, has a smile that lights up the stage. Her innocent, yet sensuous “When You’ve Got It, Flaunt It” is a showstopper.
Handsome, wily Billy Dawson is stunning and extremely funny as effeminate director, Roger DeBris (“Keep It Gay”), ably accompanied by his lascivious assistant, Carmen Ghia, played with steamy relish by Dominic Rescigno. Dawson truly shines when playing the effeminate Fuhrer in the splashy, “Springtime for Hitler.” Andrew Sickel, usually a handsome, leading man, is hysterical as German playwright Franz Liebkind. His audition piece, “Haben Sie gehort das deutsche Band” and his trio with Max and Leo, “Der Guten Tag Hop-Clop,” are playful and priceless.
Six skilled musicians, housed high atop the playing area, are ably led by Musical Director Charlotte Rivard-Hoster. While conducting at her keyboard, the musical combo features brass, woodwinds and percussion, all nicely providing accompaniment for Brooks’ rousing score. Choreography by ensemble members Kim Green and Jenna Schoppe (who also plays the humorous, elderly Hold Me Touch Me) is sassy and spunky while paying campy tribute to a dozen other musical classics.
It would be difficult to replicate the polish and splendor of the original production, but Walters has directed and orchestrated a finely produced, very respectable and funny version of Mel Brooks’ musical satire. Filled with clever dialogue, unrestrained profanity, titillating characters, adult humor, catchy songs and snappy choreography, all performed by a terrifically talent cast, NightBlue’s newest offering is a theatrical winner!
“The Producers” is presented through October 11 in repertory with “Victor/Victoria,” by NightBlue Performing Arts Company at Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont Ave., Chicago. Tickets are available online here or by phone at (773) 327-5252. Additional information is available at the company’s website, here. Colin’s reviews are also published at theatreinchicago.com.