Chicago Theatre Review
The King of Broadway Returns
The Producers -Mercury Theatre
Winning a record-breaking twelve Tony Awards back in 2001, following a Chicago pre-Broadway tryout, Mel Brooks’ hit musical, adapted from his own immensely popular film of the same name, with assistance by Thomas Meehan, is a nonstop laugh riot. It tells the story of two theatrical producers, the histrionic-given Max Bialystock and his shy accountant Leo Bloom. They’re just a couple of guys conspiring to make their fortune by overselling shares in a guaranteed Broadway flop and then pocket the profits. However, when the show turns out to be an unexpected hit, Bialystock’s first in years, the IRS goes after the fellas and trouble (and comedy) ensues. Filled with fast-paced dialogue, unstoppable laughs and delightfully catchy musical numbers, all written by Brooks, this show demands an over-the-top production in order to succeed.
And, wow! Does it ever! This high octane, multitalented, energetic cast, most of whom play multiple roles, gives the audience their money’s worth, and then some. With smooth, speedy costume changes (thanks to Frances Maggio’s colorful, eye-popping wardrobe and Kevin Bartel’s whimsical wig creations), this cast transforms itself over and over again while never slowing the pace. The same can be said of Jeffrey D. Kmiec’s creative, fantastically flexible scenic design that, because of a well-rehearsed cast and crew, changes locales in mere seconds. In other words, there’s never, ever a dull moment in this dazzlingly directed and produced show.
Of course, the greatest credit goes to L. Walter Stearns for his sharp, supercharged direction. Utilizing every inch of the Mercury stage, this production hits the ground running and never loses its steam. Stearns mines every single comic opportunity. Each line, sight gag and piece of schtick is there purely for the audience’s enjoyment. No laugh has been left behind. One of the best elements of this production is how Mr. Stearns focuses on the deep friendship between his two leading characters. So often a director will stress what he sees as a rivalry between Bialystock and Bloom, causing the last quarter of this musical to often feel dishonest, unmotivated and added on. In Stearns’ vision, this is a story about two devoted friends, partners who really love and respect each other; and despite some financial calamity and romantic competition that causes some friction, the musical is, in the end, a buddy story.
Musical maestro Eugene Dizon has directed this company with his customary skill and sensitivity, not only attentive to the musical notes, but to diction and interpretation. Dizon also conducts the show’s wonderful seven-piece, offstage orchestra, making certain the sound balance between singer and musician is perfect. And Brigitte Ditmars’ energetic, often comic choreography adds so much to this high-spirited production. She’s brought the splashiness of Broadway to Southport.
The cast is led by a dynamo of spirit, spunk and schtick, a magnificent talent named Bill Larkin. This rubber-faced actor, who almost resembles a young Mel Brooks, has previously dazzled audiences playing leading roles in “A Funny Thing…Forum” and “A Class Act.” However, his Max Bialystock, a role created on film by Zero Mostel and on Broadway by Nathan Lane, is truly triumphant. Mr. Larkin is a dynamic “King of Broadway.” This actor makes (seemingly) easy work of a very demanding role. All of Mr. Larkin’s scenes and songs, performed with nonstop, gatling gun intensity and energy, are seamlessly executed, culminating with a tour de force Act II musical recap of the entire show, entitled “Betrayed.”
Mr. Larkin is perfectly matched by the outstanding Matt Crowle. He creates an absolute side-splitting Leo Bloom, a jumpy, nerdy, girl-shy accountant, who still carries around his security blanky. Despite his mundane job, Bloom harbors a secret dream of becoming a theatrical producer. This handsome triple threat gives 100% in every song, dance and comic opportunity. After recently impressing as Albert Peterson in Drury Lane’s “Bye Bye Birdie,” Mr. Crowle makes this role all his own, another part seemingly written expressly to fit his talents. The actor has charm, a pleasing vocal style and an abundance of Gene Kelly choreographic talent. His Leo Bloom, while seething with sublimated enthusiasm, provides a nice, calm contrast to Mr. Larkin’s bombastic Bialystock. Numbers like “We Can Do It,” “That Face,” “Til Him” and the showstopping “I Wanna Be a Producer” all stand out because, as a musical comedy team, these two actors are sensational and unstoppable.
This dynamic duo is ably supported by a gifted ensemble. The lovely, Allison Sill plays Ulla, the Swedish blond bombshell who makes both Bialystock and Bloom her unwitting “Prisoners of love.” Ms. Sill (remembered for her portrayal of spunky Laurey Williams in Paramount’s recent “Oklahoma”) is a voluptuous, leggy beauty with a smile that simply lights up the stage. Her innocent, yet sensuous “When You’ve Got It, Flaunt It” is not only funny, but beautifully sung, as are all of Ms. Sill’s numbers. Handsome, wily Jason Richards is extremely flamboyant, fabulous and funny as effeminate director, Roger DeBris (“Keep It Gay”), ably accompanied by his lascivious, sibilant assistant, Carmen Ghia, played with steamy relish by the statuesque Sawyer Smith. Mr. Richards positively steals the show, glittering and gay, when he’s forced to step in for the effeminate Fuhrer in the splashy, “Springtime for Hitler.” Harter Clingman, remembered for his loving portrayal of Uncle Fester in Mercury’s “The Addams Family,” is hysterical as German playwright Franz Liebkind. His audition piece, “Haben Sie gehort das deutsche Band” and his trio with Max and Leo, “Der Guten Tag Hop-Clop,” are both playful and priceless, as are his scene-stealing pigeons.
The entire ensemble of talented, tireless singers and dancers are all skilled, sassy and spunky, especially while paying campy tribute to a dozen other classic musical styles. Besides the wild abandon of the opening, “King of Broadway,” and the hilarious company of Little Old Ladies kicking up their heels in “Along Came Bialy,” the jewel of the show, “Springtime for Hitler,” is gorgeous, grandiose and filled with grins.
It would be difficult to replicate the polish and splendor of the original Broadway production, but L. Walter Stearns has cast and directed a flashy, resplendently produced, funny and honest version of Mel Brooks’ musical satire. Filled with clever dialogue, unrestrained profanity, politically incorrect plot points, titillating characters, adult humor, catchy songs and snappy choreography, all performed by a terrifically talented cast, Mercury Theater’s latest offering is a winner. This production is undeniably a most welcome return of the King…the King of Broadway.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented April 14-June 26 by Mercury Theater Chicago, 3745 N. Southport Ave., Chicago.
Tickets are available in person at the box office, by calling 773-325-1700 or by going to www.MercuryTheaterChicago.com
Additional information about this and other fine area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com
AS THE EDITOR OF CHICAGO THEATRE REVIEW I LEAVE ALL THE WRITING TO MY VERY ABLE BODIED REVIEWERS AND DON’T COMMENT. BUT I FEEL THIS PRODUCTION WARRANTS THE FOLLOWING. I HAD THE GOOD FORTUNE TO SEE THE PRODUCERS WHEN IT PREVIEWED IN CHICAGO AND KNOWING GARY BEACH (WHO PLAYED ROGER DeBRIS AND WENT ON TO WIN THE TONY AWARD) IT ALSO HAPPENS TO BE ONE OF MY FAVORITES. I DID NOT THINK ANYTHING COULD MATCH THAT PRODUCTION BUT THIS CAME VERY CLOSE. THIS WAS A TRIUMPHANT MASTERPIECE, PERFECTLY CAST, WITH SOME OF THE BEST COMEDIC TIMING I HAVE SEEN IN A LONG TIME. KUDOS TO L. WALTER STEARNS, EUGENE AND THE ENTIRE CAST OF THIS SHOW FOR A JOB VERY WELL DONE. AND TO OUR READERS, THIS IS A MUST SEE -Gayle Kirshenbaum