Where: Mercury Theater Chicago, 3745 N. Southport Ave.
When: through June 26
By ANNE SPISELMAN
Mel Brooks The Producers is a big musical that depends on a certain amount of spectacle, so theres a risk involved in tailoring it to a relatively small stage like that at the Mercury Theater. Director L. Walter Stearns doesnt exactly avoid the pitfalls, but his production is enjoyable enough to be worth seeing, and hes got an ace in the hole: Matt Crowles unforgettable performance as Leo Bloom.
Based on Brooks 1968 film, with music and lyrics by him and a book by him and Thomas Meehan, The Producers was first staged in Chicago, then in 2001 went to Broadway, where it racked up rave reviews and 12 Tony Awards including Best Musical and Best Performance by a Leading Actor in a Musical for both its stars, Nathan Lane as Max Bialystock and Matthew Broderick as Bloom. They repeated their roles in the 2005 movie.
Not surprisingly, theyre a hard act to follow, but Crowles Bloom is the best Ive ever seen. A good singer and terrific dancer with superb comic timing, he turns the timid, stage-struck accountant who comes to do the books of down-on-his-luck producer Bialystock into a tour de force of hilarious neuroses, hesitations and arguably well-founded fears. His face is infinitely expressive, and his skill shines in everything from the way he uses his little blue security blanket to his budding romance with Ulla (Allison Sill), the statuesque Swedish blond who arrives at the office to audition and stays to be the secretary.
The show Ulla wants to try out for is, of course, Springtime for Hitler, which is at the heart of the scheme Bialystock and Bloom hatch when the latter discovers an accounting anomaly that would allow a producer to make more money with a flop than a hit, and after he works up the courage to quit the job in which he is terribly unhappy. The plan is to find the worst script possible, hire the worst director, raise $2-million from Bialystocks usual investors, a group of sex-crazed little old ladies, and mount a production guaranteed to close the first night. It backfires when Springtime becomes a surprise satirical hit, with dire consequences for the duo, followed by a predictable happy ending.
Brooks, a self-styled equal opportunity offender, manages to skewer almost everyone and everything from the Nazis to homosexuals to Broadway traditions, but he does it so cleverly and gleefully that we cant help but be amusedand even laugh out loud. I found myself especially appreciating the wit of some of the songs, as well as scenes that are gems spoofing specific theatrical tropes. The first encounter with Nazi playwright Franz Liebkind (disturbingly sweet-faced Harter Clingman) with his pigeons on his Greenwich Village rooftop, is typical (though not as sublime as in the original), as is the visit to the Upper East Side town house of flamboyantly gay director, Roger DeBris (Jason Richards), and his mincing yet brittle assistant Carmen Ghia (Sawyer Smith).
Id like to say that Bill Larkins Bialystock is a match for Crowles Bloom, but thats not the case. He has his momentsmost notably the solo Betrayed in which he recaps the show so far, including intermission on the cell phone, from a prison holding celland his arched eyebrows give him a devilish look that makes the characters dirty-old-man randiness all the more unsavory, but his tendency toward mugging and over-the-top campiness undercuts the humor. Hes at his best when he lets Crowle do his thing and simply provides support.
Despite the efforts of choreographer Brigitte Ditmars, the dance routines look rather ragged. There arent even enough old ladies in Little Old Lady Land (some are played by men), and the number with the walkers falls flat. It probably doesnt matter that the would-be show-stopper, Springtime for Hitler, lacks that Busby Berkeley splendor, because its supposed to be terrible, but the rest should certainly be better.
Scenic designer Jeffrey D. Kmiec and costumer designer Frances Maggio do what they can within budget constraints, and the inventive Broadway signs for the opening and other scenes bear reading. The small orchestra sounds pretty good under musical director Eugene Dizon.
While Stearns and his ensemble dont break any new ground with The Producers, and some aspects of the production could be better, I was glad I saw it. In fact, I wouldnt have missed Crowles Bloom for the world.