By Barry Reszel
Truth be told, there’s a little Leo Bloom in everyone.
He’s the timid half of Mel Brooks‘ two-leading-man team in Brooks’ wildly successful comedy franchise, The Producers. Bloom, a do-as-he’s-told accountant joins fly-by-the-seat-of-his-pants, down-on-his-luck Max Bialystock in a scheme to produce a surefire Broadway flop, abruptly close the show, make millions by cashing investors’ checks and abscond to Rio. (A full plot summary and production history of the musical is here.)
But Leo doesn’t really participate for the money. He’s in it to change his life, singing, “I wanna be a producer ’cause it’s everything I’m not.”
At least some will find it impossible to avoid an emotional focus on Bloom when attending Mercury Theater Chicago’s splendid production of what is now a bona fide musical theatre classic (most Tony’s in history, 12, including Best Musical). In part, that’s because the insightful casting choice of Matt Crowle, Chicagoland’s Matthew Broderick, accentuates the tender amid the uproarious slapstick that, in lesser productions, gets lost.
It’s also because of the joyful man greeting patrons pre-show on the sidewalk in front and thanking them from the balcony steps on exit.
This seems the right show at the right time for Mercury’s Executive Director/Producer/Director L. Walter Stearns. He bought the 300-seat Lakeview venue in 2010, updated the magical antique and started running musical productions full time (four shows/year) two years later. (A history of the Mercury is here.) His next project is turning next door Cullen’s into a separate performance space.
The Stearns/Bloom parallel only goes so far. Indeed, his partner in business and life, Eugene Dizon, is the former accountant and now serves as Mercury’s business manager and musical director extraordinaire. Before taking over the Mercury, Stearns was artistic director of Porchlight Music Theatre; produced more than 50 musicals; received Jeff, After-Dark and Guy Adkins awards for musical theatre and the Franny Award for distinguished alumni of the University of Illinois at Chicago.
So Stearns’ Mercury foray was no Bloomian escape. Instead, it built on a well-laid foundation, providing that builder artistic freedom and control to live his creative, professional life as he desires.
That’s a rare feat in the entertainment industry. And Chicagoland musical theatre patrons are the beneficiaries. Because like Stearns’ Mercury offerings preceding this one, The Producers is a well-sung, terrifically danced, fully professional production at the coolest off-Broadway-sized venue in the Midwest.
Indeed, quality begins with uber-competency backstage. It’s led by Stage Manager Kristi J. Martens and buoyed by the talents of Brigitte Ditmars (choreography), Jeffrey D. Kmiec (scenic design), Nick Belley (lighting design), Mike Ross (sound design), Frances Maggio (costume design) and their teams of capable assistants.
Onstage, highlights abound beyond Crowle’s deft performance as Bloom. Bill Larkin is excellent as over-the-top schmuck Bialystock. With most of the script (Brooks and Thomas Meehan) and bouncy songbook (all Brooks) written for these two characters, its incumbent on them to carry the show with crisp comedic timing. And carry it they do.
Allison Sill is the perfect Brooksian Swedish bombshell. In a near reprise of her Inga from Young Frankenstein (Drury Lane 2014), Sill is extraordinarily talented, albeit sexist eye candy, as secretary/tidy uuper/actress Ulla.
The wonderful surprise in this production, beyond the poignancy of of Bloom’s personal journey, is the comic trio of Harter Clingman (Franz Liebkind, author of Springtime for Hitler) Jason Richards (Roger DeBris, director of Springtime for Hitler) and Sawyer Smith (DeBris’ assistant/lover/choreographer Carmen Ghia). These three steal every scene they’re in; those with Richards and Smith featuring delicious catfights over the biggest guffaws. True farcical delight.
This production of The Producers is all it should be. Indeed, Chicagoland patrons should make plans now for a fabulous Lakeview afternoon or evening’s entertainment at the coolest neighborhood theatre venue in town.
Mercury Theater Chicago presents “The Producers” Wednesdays to Sundays through June 26 at the Mercury Theater, 3745 N. Southport Avenue, Chicago. More information and tickets ($30 – $65) are available by calling (773) 325-1700 or online here.