A chorus line of goosestepping, nubile women with swastika armbands parading onstage as a Nazi dominatrix sporting Iron Cross pasties prowls in front of them? What is this, some methed-out white supremacist séance/circle jerk? No, It’s the tune Springtime for Hitler, the climactic number in The Producers, perhaps the most jovially offensive idea to ever conquer Broadway.
Name your big target, and chances are creator Mel Brooks ridicules it in his play about a fading Broadway producer and ambitious accountant who team up to create the biggest flop in the history of Broadway in hopes of making a mint: senior citizens, homosexuals, Swedes, Jewish American princesses, pigeons. And, of course, anyone who finds it difficult to find anything funny about Adolf Hitler and the Third Reich.
But the saving grace of Brooks’ decidedly old-school Broadway musical isn’t that he spoofs anyone and anything with relentless joie de vivre; any standup comic worth a damn does the same thing and gets away with it. It’s that he never sells himself or his material out by giving a sly wink to the audience or dropping in a South Park-like moral at the end. The Producers is utterly offensive, utterly unapologetic and utterly funny.
At least it is in this Maverick Theater production. Director Brian Newell and company confirm their statuses as the best musical-comedy producers in Orange County with this one, which shouldn’t surprise anyone who has viewed past offerings such as Urinetown and The Rocky Horror Show. Newell is definitely a showman, one who realizes that for a deliriously irreverent show to click, it’s not enough to have great talent. Everything surrounding the actors also has to look and sound good. And it does, from costume designer Curtis Jerome’s ravishing outfits to the seven-person band led by conductor/keyboardist Benjamin Sagan.
For whatever reason (I’m guessing it’s because of his close relationship with Fullerton College’s theater department), there is a constant influx of young, enthusiastic talent on the Maverick’s stage, the kind of starry-eyed thespians who are game for just about anything. And that translates into high-energy shows that are also easy on the eyes, which is important for a play such as The Producers. If you’re going to laugh at a musical number championing Hitler’s blitzkrieg of Europe, there had better be some attractive people onstage—as Bob Weir would say, if you’re going to hell in a bucket, you may as well enjoy the ride.
None of this is to imply the ensemble lacks talent. Rick Franklin, who has demonstrated ample acting chops in a number of serious roles, shows off some song-and-dance skill in the lead role of Max Bialystock. Though his energy level lags a bit (how couldn’t it when he’s surrounded by an ensemble of freakishly energetic actors, most of whom are a good 30 years younger?), Franklin imbues the egotistical Bialystock with the right measures of bravado and desperation.
And Shaun-Michael McNamara absolutely owns his character, Leo Bloom, the nervous accountant who signs on to Bialystock’s deceitful scheme of bilking $2 million from sexually deprived old ladies. He possesses major talent; anyone who had the misfortune of watching Martin Short destroy this role when the national tour of The Producers rolled into Los Angeles some six years ago needs to see McNamara to wipe that memory clean.
The main supporting characters are also extraordinary: Kalinda Gray’s masterfully sexy turn as Swedish bombshell Ulla; David Chorley’s maniacally brain-damaged Nazi playwright Franz Liebkind; and Glenn Freeze’s effortlessly high-strung Roger Debris, the vain director enlisted by our two producers in hopes of guiding this nightmarishly horrible musical into the sewer. There isn’t a weak link in the ensemble, which is paced by the typically hilarious Nick McGee.
No, The Producers isn’t great art. It’s not important or relevant. And it isn’t a great musical: Outside of Springtime for Hitler, the songs are pedestrian and forgettable. Nor is it even particularly sharp satire. There really is no higher purpose at work than merely trafficking in cheap laughs at Hitler apologists, sexually frustrated octogenarians and flamboyant queens.
It is definitely a show that caters to the lowest common denominator, one that laughs at the expense of others, the type of fare that makes the skin of serious-minded theater types crawl.
But it’s also damn funny. And when packaged in a production that fires on every cylinder—like this one—it’s absolutely great entertainment, even if it’s for highly suspect reasons.
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The Producers is presented by Maverick Theater, 110 E. Walnut Ave., Fullerton, (714) 526-7070; www.mavericktheater.com. Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 3 & 8 p.m. Through Aug. 1. $15-$25.
This review appeared in print as "Don’t Be Stupid, Be a Smarty: Come and join the Nazi-party-tweaking fun with Maverick Theater’s production of The Producers."