Review: “The Producers”

Allison Sill (Ulla), Bill Larkin (Max Bialystock), Matt Crowle (Leo Bloom) in “The Producers,”?now playing at Mercury Theater Chicago, 3745 N. Southport Ave. - Brett A. Beiner
Allison Sill (Ulla), Bill Larkin (Max Bialystock), Matt Crowle (Leo Bloom) in “The Producers,”?now playing at Mercury Theater Chicago, 3745 N. Southport Ave.

– Brett A. Beiner

Where: Mercury Theater Chicago, 3745 N. Southport Ave.
When: through June 26
Phone: 773-325-1700
Theater Critic

Mel Brooks’ “The Producers” is a big musical that depends on a certain amount of spectacle, so there’s a risk involved in tailoring it to a relatively small stage like that at the Mercury Theater. Director L. Walter Stearns doesn’t exactly avoid the pitfalls, but his production is enjoyable enough to be worth seeing, and he’s got an ace in the hole: Matt Crowle’s 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, they’re a hard act to follow, but Crowle’s Bloom is the best I’ve 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 Bialystock’s 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 can’t help but be amused—and 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).

I’d like to say that Bill Larkin’s Bialystock is a match for Crowle’s Bloom, but that’s not the case. He has his moments—most notably the solo “Betrayed” in which he recaps the show so far, including intermission on the cell phone, from a prison holding cell—and his arched eyebrows give him a devilish look that makes the character’s dirty-old-man randiness all the more unsavory, but his tendency toward mugging and over-the-top campiness undercuts the humor. He’s 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 aren’t even enough old ladies in Little Old Lady Land (some are played by men), and the number with the walkers falls flat. It probably doesn’t matter that the would-be show-stopper, “Springtime for Hitler,” lacks that Busby Berkeley splendor, because it’s 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 don’t 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 wouldn’t have missed Crowle’s Bloom for the world.