By Jason Epperson
I’ve now seen Mel Brook’s THE PRODUCERS a few times in the years since the licensing has been released for regional theaters, and, though I love the show, it never quite rings as true as the national tour in which I first saw it. In fact, that tour even felt a little off at times, because THE PRODUCERS is written for Broadway. Not just the musical theater art form, but specifically for that swath of steel and concrete between 40th and 54th street and 6th and 8th Avenue in Manhattan. The whole thing is not just a love-letter to the Great White Way, but a meta-exercise in its titular profession — Broadway producing.
Brooks “produced” the hell out of the Producers. First, he lined up investors by creating an army of co-producers and associate producers. These titles were mostly in-name-only, but in the years following, every major investor on Broadway expects to have their name “above the title.” Then he hired Susan Stroman — fresh off of the 2000 Best Musical Tony Award-winning CONTACT — and together they created a production on a scale that is hard to accomplish even in New York, with a big cast led by two megawatt stars, Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick.
Then, Brooks and his management team re-invented Broadway ticket pricing with the introduction of “premium seats” with out-of-this-world prices. It almost didn’t matter how high they raised the prices, people with the means would pay to sit in the best seats, and the rest of us mortals would still be able to sit anywhere else. It began with 50 seats a performance at $480 a piece (nearly 5 times the then Broadway top ticket of $100), but these days, most of the main floor seating for any Broadway hit is designated as “premium.”
It all came to a head at the 2001 Tony Awards, when THE PRODUCERS won a record 12 statues, and those dozens of “producers” lined up behind Brooks to accept the Best Musical Tony. In recent years, the Tony Awards have threatened to limit the number of people allowed to go up and accept.
So, I don’t know, sometimes sitting through THE PRODUCERS outside of New York is a little bit like being a guest at a wedding where you don’t know that many people, and I think that’s just something we have to deal with if we want to enjoy this incredibly entertaining musical. I think it really may be impossible for a regional production to hit a home run with this script. And then, there’s still the fact that this is an uncommonly tricky production to pull off financially. The original Broadway cast featured 27 actors. The scenery was lavish and transformed on a dime. The costumes were extravagant and endless.
So what’s a mid-sized company to do? Well, let’s start by saying that MTH says this is the biggest production they have ever put on. And the company has focused their efforts in the same place they always do — the music. The orchestra is bigger and better than you’ll find in any theater this size, and the actors generally have the voices to fill out the score that was originally sung by a cast twice their size. The sound quality is pitch-perfect, which is much harder and much more expensive than the layperson can imagine.
But sacrifices clearly have to be made to get something as big as THE PRODUCERS off the ground, and at MTH, that offering comes by way of the execution of the physical production. Tiajana Bjelajac’s set is conceived well enough, and succeeds in providing the lightning-fast changes required, but she and props designer Jessalyn Kincaid clearly didn’t have the dough to flesh out the details, to provide any semblance of opulence or drama. A video projector is relied on heavily, but it’s underpowered and haphazardly implemented. A few costumes are coming apart at the seams. The designers’ ideas are mostly agreeable, but the funds just don’t seem to be there to support them.
So why pretend? Nobody is expecting Broadway hit production value. This production could have made a running in-joke about the limitations, but it doesn’t. Director DJ Salisbury seemingly spent so much time figuring out how to make THE PRODUCERS work on a small scale, that he forgot to put his own stamp on it. He tries a little too hard to make some semblance of Stroman’s original staging work, instead of accepting that the impossibility of that feat and making it his own. At one point, Max Bialystock spouts a line that goes something like “You’ve heard of theater in the round? I invented theater in the square! Nobody has a good seat!” What a perfect moment for this production to get “meta” about its own producers. We’re all literally sitting in a square, or at least on three sides of one in the MTH 3/4 thrust theater at Crown Center. At another point, Ulla has supposedly repainted the offices of Bialystock and Bloom all white overnight. It was a pretty neat moment of stagecraft in the original, but here, practically nothing changes, and we’re made to imagine it. That’s all fine, there’s nothing wrong with producing on a budget, but this production is never self-aware — a missed opportunity to make this show for the audience in the room.
But it’s still devilishly funny and reverent and lovable. I’ve always found Leo Bloom to really be the key character, and T. Eric Morris is so close to nailing it. He delivers the humor and the music, he just needs to dial the vocal characterization back a hair to ground it in reality. Ryan Hruza nearly succeeds in making Max Bialystock likable, something I don’t think even than Lane did. Maybe one less boner gag, and we’d be there. Brooke Lacy is a top-notch Ulla. Some of the best performances come from Martin Buchanan, who, along with the rest of the cast, plays a variety of bit roles.
It all mostly works, and you’ll have a great time, especially if you’ve never experienced this show before. THE PRODUCERS is a tough needle to thread, and the physical production at MTH may not be lavish, but the music certainly is.