by Marilyn Lester
Opening Night Photos: Maryann Lopinto
Let it be said first and foremost that in this production of The Producers, the Tony-winning Paper Mill Playhouse has a big fat hit on its hands. The only tragedy in the Mel Brooks/Thomas Meehan comedy is that it plays for one month only in Millburn. (Brooks wrote the book, lyrics and music, with Meehan sharing book credit.)
The Producers isn’t an easy musical to pull off successfully. There’s that old show-biz adage, “dying is easy, comedy is hard,” and The Producers has comedy galore. Brooks and Meehan wrote an absolutely hilarious show with little downtime in the laugh department. The pace is unrelenting, the costume changes demanding, and the ghosts of icons associated with the piece—Zero Mostel, Gene Wilder, Nathan Lane, Matthew Broderick—hover. The Paper Mill team has tackled it all and come up a winner. Overall casting is spot-on. Not only are the principals and ensemble seasoned actors, but good reactors: no moments are lost in making the most of hitting all the comic marks.
By now, the plot of The Producers is pretty well known: a down-on-his-luck Broadway loser (Bialystock) hooks up with an unhappy schlump of an accountant (Bloom) to make money by producing the worst Broadway show possible: Springtime for Hitler. But this stinker of a property turns out to be the wildest success of all time. Michael Kostroff as the scheming Max Bialystock and David Josephsberg as the nebbish Leopold Bloom not only have a great chemistry together but shine in their individual performances. Kostroff’s expressive eyes and general mugging give Bialy a compelling edge, especially in the solo “Betrayed.” Kostroff also excels, in particular, with his several Little Old Lady scenes. Josephsberg is a thoroughly believable and sympathetic Bloom. He makes much of Bloom’s blue blanket insecurities, and is entirely adorable as he succumbs to the wiles of Ulla (“That Face”), the Swedish vixen. Ashley Spencer as Ulla lacks the subtle earthiness the part requires, but she’s got the moves and is obviously having fun with her exaggerated Scandinavian accent.
The Producers teeters on the edge of slapstick from time to time, and in the hilarious scene of hiring the worst director imaginable, Kevin Pariseau as Roger De Bris (his “Heil to Myself” was especially masterful), and Mark Price as his assistant, Carmen Ghia, enter that territory with uproarious results. John Tracy Egan as Springtime author, Franz Liebkind, has the look and enthusiasm for the part but falls short in giving Franz the necessary measure of zany crazy that the role requires.
Hats off to the remarkable ensemble of The Producers (particularly Madeleine Doherty and Scott Cote), whose doubling of roles was deft and whose singing and dancing chops help make major production numbers such as “Opening Night,” “Along Came Bialy,” “Haben Sie Gehört das Deutsche Band?” and “Springtime for Hitler” (with a shout-out to Lead Tenor John Jeffords) thrilling. Much of the success of this outing of The Producers lies in the decision to base it on the original 2001 Broadway production.
Recreated direction and choreography (from the originals by Susan Stroman) are by Don Stephenson and Bill Burns, respectively, who add their own smart, special touches to the template. Scenery based on the original design by Robin Wagner is handled by David Peterson with excellent understanding of the spatial requirements of the Paper Mill stage. Martha Bromelmeier turned out breathtaking costumes based on the originals by William Ivey Long. Lighting by John Lasiter supports the action with acuity, but uneven sound design by Randy Hansen is problematic. Music Director James Moore energetically led a pit orchestra of 12 musicians who produced glorious full-bodied sound as if double the size.
The Producers. (Wednesday- Sunday) Paper Mill Playhouse, Millburn, NJ, 973-376-4343, www.papermill.org
Photos: Billy Bustamante