Given all the musicals about show people trying hard to achieve something, from 42nd Street to A Chorus Line, you'd think a tunefest about theater people trying desperately to fail wouldn't be very entertaining. But that's why The Producers has carved a distinctive place for itself over the years.
With music and lyrics by Mel Brooks and book by Brooks and Thomas Meehan, this satirical extravaganza has won a passel of awards on Broadway. Now the Beck Center is taking on those lovable con men from the Great White Way. With more than 40 people in the cast, lots of set changes, and loads of costumes, this production requires not only commitment — it demands a company that can poke fun at all kinds of showbiz shibboleths without coming across as mean-spirited or just silly. And this well-paced production mostly succeeds, nailing plenty of laughs along the way, even if there is something of a vacuum at the center.
At the start, producer of schlock and nonstop conniver Max Bialystock is sharing his woes with street people since his latest show, a musical version of Hamlet, has closed after one performance. Down and out, he's being audited by an accountant, Leo Bloom, until Bloom mentions that a flop show could make more money than a hit, since none of the investors would have to be paid off and the IRS wouldn't be interested.
Soon, devious Max plans to raise a ton of money to mount the worst show possible, a musical that will offend everyone, so that he and the newly recruited Leo can abscond with the leftover funds. Once Max reads the script Springtime for Hitler: A Gay Romp With Eva and Adolf at Berchtesgaden, written by Franz Liebkind, a former and evidently still current Nazi, the boys are in business.
Under the bustling and frequently witty direction of Scott Spence, the Beck army of actors performs with energy and often with a dash of comic inspiration. When Max and Leo are seeking "the worst director in town" to ensure the play's demise, they call on Roger DeBris, a flaming queen that Kevin Joseph Kelly flounces to the delicious hilt. Kelly's limp-wristed egomaniac is abetted hilariously by Chris Richards, who plays DeBris' assistant Carmen Ghia as a wacky cross between Ming the Merciless and Lloyd from Entourage.
Also excellent is Gilgamesh A. Taggett as beefy and belligerent Franz, cooing to his caged pigeons as Max and Leo woo him with dreams of theatrical success. Taggett actually manages to turn three forgettable tunes — "In Old Bavaria," "Der Guten Tag Hop Clop" and "Have You Ever Heard the German Band" — into small comic treats. Max and Leo are assisted by aspiring actor and Swedish knockout Ulla (an adorable Betsy Kahl).
However, in the pivotal role of Max, avuncular Mark Heffernan is smooth and effortless onstage, which is the crux of his problem. Max should be a bundle of Jewish neuroses wrapped up in a comical, cartoonish kludge of sleaziness and greed. But Heffernan glides through the role with such ease (singing quite well, by the way) that we rarely see Max's rough edges — the ones that give Brooks' punch lines their bite.
As a result, the opening of the show feels soft, since it's Max's song "The King of Broadway" that must kick off the proceedings. And Max's star turn at the end, when he recaps the entire story while whining about being betrayed, falls flat.
Brandon Isner as Leo is every inch the wimp that this fragile accountant should be, but his role is weakened since he doesn't have a brash and contentious Max to fence with. This makes their eventual bonding much less of a transformative moment. Still, the large company picks up a lot of that slack, with hilarious production numbers such as "Keep It Gay" and the Act One closer "Along Came Bialy," featuring 16 old ladies dancing with their walkers (kudos to choreographer Mary Ann Black).
But the best moment is the triumphant "Springtime for Hitler" number when scantily clad frauleins prance out in bikinis adorned with beer steins and pretzels in all the right places. With trying-to-look-straight DeBris pressed into the role of Hitler at the last moment, this show-stopper is so wrong it's absolutely perfect.
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