Mel Brooks’ satirical Broadway smash The Producers is unquestionably comic gold. The 2001 musical won a record 12 Tony Awards that year then ran for six years and some 2,500 performances on Broadway, spawning subsequent hit national tours and regional runs. Based on Brooks’ 1968 comic film starring Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder as unscrupulous producers scheming to put on the worst musical ever as a moneymaking con, The Producers is filled with the same kind of slightly bawdy/naughty musical send-ups that show up in such Mel Brooks movies as Robin Hood: Men in Tights (“Men in Tights”), The History of the World: Part One (“The Inquisition”), Young Frankenstein (“Putting on the Ritz”), and Blazing Saddles (the innovative tap number “Campfire Song”). Unquestionably brilliant, The Producers has something not only to make everyone laugh, but to offend anyone aching to be offended.
The question then is, what is the unconventional, offensively funny The Producers doing up on Park Playhouse’s stage, home for 23 years to safe, corporately and politically supported family musical productions?
Answer: making people piss their pants from laughing.
The Producers is “a satiric masterpiece,” and “a surprise smash!” as Mel Brooks writes in the show, and PPH’s most original production in 23 years more than lives up to Brooks’ praise. In a year when PPH’s political and corporate funding has hit a drought, the folks at Park Playhouse have hit a home run with this visually pleasing, laugh-out-loud funny, grin-like-a-drunk-prom-date musical. This is most definitely not the friendly pabulum of yesteryear. While sound problems plagued the July 20 performance—the producers at Park Playhouse later e-mailed that the “electrical problems” that marred act one, held up intermission, and marred act two have been fixed—this is one of the best shows I’ve scene at PPH in 20 years of reviewing there, and certainly the bravest and most engaging. If you want to laugh, the north side of Washington Park Lake at 8 PM is the place to be Tuesday through Sunday until Aug. 14.
While the sound problems slowed director Michael LoPorto’s crisply paced and smartly staged production—William Davis’s smart scene design, heavily relying on wagons to briskly weave scene changes into the flow of the show, aids the performers, and lighting designer Vincent Vigilante keeps them sharply in focused even during the frequent big production numbers—this Producers really sings whenever the main comic duo take the stage, rogue Max Bialystock (a capable Jason Marks doing a very good physical and vocal impersonation of Tony-winner Nathan Lane) and nebbish sad-sack Leopold Bloom (when the sound problems seem to zero in on the very game Jason Jacoby, his set-upon mien deepened to a level of pity usually reserved only for faithful political spouses). Individually, Jacoby scores in the A Chorus Line-ish “I Wanna Be a Producer,” flashily choreographed by Geoffrey Doig-Marx to include a dozen gold-lame draped chorus girls tapping, including one obviously in need of a shave, some estrogen, and some dance lessons. Marks shines in the solo while waiting in jail, “Betrayed,” a re-cap of the show right down to the intermission raffle and sound issues.
The main duo are winningly supported by towering Shawn Morgan as former Nazi soldier, playwright, and pigeon fancier Franz Liebkind, author of the worse musical ever, Springtime for Hitler. Morgan’s “Der Gutten Tag Hop-Clop” with Max and Leo captures the spirit of the Three Stooges, and the performance of Franz’s pigeon Adolph is the finest animal cameo at Park Playhouse since Camelot’s squirrel solo several seasons ago. The sharp-eyed will watch for the pigeon’s salute in one of the production’s many clever visual chotchkes.
But the hit of The Producers is “Springtime for Hitler,” which ranks as the funniest eye-popping and side-splitting scene in Park Playhouse’s 23-year history. It is an orgy of chotchkes worn in places few chotchkes have gone before; by the time the song hits its Busby Berkeley/June Taylor homage, in the capable hands/heads/rears/breasts of Park Playhouse’s chorus, “Springtime for Hitler” achieves a comedic panache I laughed about long into the night. Until the rights to the long-anticipated musical version of Swift’s A Modest Proposal are released, or The Book of Mormon descends to the hinterlands, or Spiderman is let loose in the park, PPH’s The Producers will be the answer to the question, “What was the funniest show around here this year?”