A “Once in a Lifetime” Musical Comedy Tribute: 54 Below Celebrates Mel Brooks

Promotional art for 54 Celebrates Mel Brooks.

By Tania Fisher

The devotees of one of this century’s greatest comic talents flocked to fill Feinstein’s/54 Below as they celebrated the great Mel Brooks. The rollicking, joyous evening was hosted by Richard Kind— perhaps one of only few men on the planet who can get a hearty laugh just from walking up on the stage and saying “Good evening.” 

Kind briefly outlined a few of Brooks’ lesser known achievements, such as co-producing films, including The Elephant Man (1980), My Favorite Year (1982), Frances (1982), The Fly (1986), and 84 Charing Cross Road (1987) starring his wife, Anne Bancroft. Kind explained that Brooks chose to remain uncredited for these films so that it would not affect the audience’s perception of what the movie might be. Defining Brooks as “the smartest guy in the room,” Kind praised Brooks’ often intellectual references (that ultimately found their way into his films) as pure genius. No one argued.  

The musical numbers opened with “Keep it Gay” from The Producers featuring an effervescent Nathan Lee Graham and Michael Kushner who certainly knew how to set the tone for the evening. Brad Oscar took to the stage next providing a fabulous rendition of “Blazing Saddles” from Blazing Saddles, but not before sharing with us Mel Brooks’ reaction to his performance as he hovered in the wings: A tilted head accompanied by “Mmph. Surprisingly good.”

Lesli Margherita gave us an inspired rendition of “I’m Tired” also from Blazing Saddles.

Cast members, including host Richard Kind, as listed at 54below.com.

The Broadway array of talent provided in oodles was certainly a special and rare treat. To have that many highly skilled artists under one roof, giving us superb performances of songs from favorite Broadway shows, was certainly a once in a lifetime event. No punchline was missed, and all the jokes landed exactly where they should have: In the laps of an appreciative and enthusiastic audience.

Who could resist “Men in Tights” when Harrison Chad and Dan DeLuca were flaunting their stuff, thanks to Robin Hood: Men in Tights. A husky, bearded Adam B. Shapiro was nothing but pure Mel Brooks-style elegance as he portrayed Marian and seductively worked the room in cross-dressing attire.

And speaking of crazy, Richard Kind reminded us that Mel would credit much of his success to his wise choice of collaborations, that allowed him to put his “craziness in line” which resulted in a plethora of beloved classic films and Broadway shows.

One would have thought that at this point of the evening the arc would have reached its peak, but the crazy just kept coming— in a good way of course. The Skivvies (a.k.a. a super-uninhibited Nick Cearley and Lauren Molina) provided a raunchy rendition of “The Hitler Rap” from To Be or Not To Be, and you guessed it: Hitler was down to his skivvies the whole time. I’m not ashamed to say there was something hypnotic about seeing a slim, swimmers-build Hitler impersonator wearing nothing but a pair of bright red jockeys with a swastika on the crotch. I wasn’t the only one. Was I feeling uncomfortable yet? There was so much more to come.

More performers and special guests, as listed at 54below.com.

Kind gave us a moment to breathe by providing tidbits of fascinating trivia, such as John Wayne turning down the role of Waco Kid in Blazing Saddles with Gig Young subsequently being cast, but after collapsing from alcohol withdrawal syndrome, Gene Wilder was flown in to replace him. Kind also reminded us to not be too surprised or offended, after all, because this was a Mel Brooks celebration show, and as Mel himself has said: “Bad taste is saying the truth just a little too soon.”

Kind explained that Mel was technically never musically trained, although at 14 he was taught how to play the drums by none other than Buddy Rich. 

Two gorgeous blondes in red, otherwise known as talented Angie Schworer and Leigh Zimmerman gave us a sexy “When You’ve Got It, Flaunt It” from The Producers, but not before Zimmerman shared a story about her personal accomplishment. After researching and studying to achieve an accurate Swedish accent in preparation for her role— for which Mel Brooks sincerely complimented her on— Mel then, just as sincerely, advised that she go home and study the Swedish Chef from The Muppet Show.

We were given a great performance of Irving Berlin’s “Puttin’ on the Ritz” from Young Frankenstein, with Timothy Hughes as the monster made famous by Peter Boyle in the film version.

The show closed with Richard Kind himself showing off his vocals in “Hope For The Best, Expect The Worst” from The Twelve Chairs, leaving us with those sage words of advice from its creator, Mel Brooks: The smartest guy in the room.

Photos: 54 Below.

Music Director: Ben Caplan

54 Celebrates Mel Brooks

Feinstein’s/54 Below – 254 W 54th St, New York, NY 10019

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