The Producers

Michael Van Duzer Reviews - Theater

A few minutes into a Friday night performance of The Producers at Celebration Theatre, the theatre was rocked by the second major earthquake in as many days. Luckily, the epicenter was far enough away that we rode out the shockwaves without incident. A quick-thinking Richardson Jones, the only actor onstage at that moment, waited out the shaking, broke the tension with a few ad-libs, and then continued the show as if nothing had happened. A lesson in control and resilience which kept the audience calm.

In the past few years, Celebration has garnered well-deserved praise for creatively reimagining a series of large-scale Broadway musicals for their decidedly small-scale stage. These scrappy, scaled-down productions often reveal the heart in a show that might have seemed more about glitz and glamour in New York.

Michael Matthews’ always inventive direction doesn’t manage the same sort of coronary revelation with Mel Brooks’ classic tale of theater shysters. It's probably because The Producers really doesn’t have a heart to discover. It is a well-oiled machine built on lighting fast Borscht Belt jokes, precision timing, and a cast of eccentric characters who expertly play off each other in this satire of backstage stories.

The cornerstone of any production of The Producers is the interplay between the desperate and down-on-his-luck producer, Max Bialystock (Richardson Jones), and the meek and easily terrified accountant,  Leo Bloom (Christopher Jewell Valentin),  who dreams of a life in “the Theatre.” Jones is obviously a gifted performer who easily commands the stage with true presence and his rich and sonorous voice. He’s younger, better-looking, and quite a bit smoother than his predecessors in the role. This casting against type is initially intriguing but winds up being a bit of a liability, despite Jones’ strong comic timing and understanding of the role. It might have worked in a deeper show than this, but Brooks has written for types, not fully-rounded characters.

Jones is not helped by Valentin’s disappointingly one-note Leo. He hasn’t found the hysteria that simmers beneath Leo’s polite exterior and explodes in several crucial moments. His Leo is amiable, without being truly lovable.

A secondary couple in the show has no trouble gleefully inhabiting the caricatures they play, one-upping each other with every exchange, and generally chewing every available filing cabinet on Stephen Gifford’s witty set to the delight of the audience. Michael A. Shepperd’s Roger De Bris is a towering, in every sense of the word, achievement. Vain, preposterous, and utterly irresistible, Shepperd offers a master class in timing, takes, and comic brio. His powerful singing is a bonus, and, if the playing space doesn’t allow him to perch on the edge of the stage, he finds the corded mic equivalent for his Garland moment. Don’t miss an early point in the show where he plays a chorus member channeling Joe in Showboat. Andrew Diego’s Carmen Ghia matches Shepperd laugh for laugh and manages the tricky business of doing another performer’s schtick while making it entirely his own.

John Colella makes an appealing and energetic Franz Liebkind, the lunatic author of the musical Max and Leo hope will make their fortune by flopping on opening night. Mary Ann Welshans’ Ulla has all the moves for her Swedish bombshell but doesn’t offer much beyond them.

The hard-working ensemble is caught up in the frenzied fun as they easily swap roles and genders to the breezy accompaniment of Musical DirectorAnthony Zediker and his teeny, tiny band with a big sound. Janet Roston’s nostalgiac choreography perfectly complements Brook’s pastiche-filled score, while E.B. Brooks seems to be having a ball outfitting everything from nuns to Third Reich Showgirls.

Celebration Theatre@the Lex    June 28 – August 12, 2019