Theater Review: THE PRODUCERS (Celebration Theatre in Los Angeles)

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by Harvey Perr on June 29, 2019

in Theater-Los Angeles


Let’s get the bad news out of the way first. The Celebration production of The Producers is as far away from the Borscht Belt as a New York musical comedy — whose central characters are named Bialystock and Bloom — can get.

On the other hand, this is the kind of outrageously joyous reconstruction and glorification of what it is that makes The American Musical Theater one of our great national treasures. It may not be The Producers you expected, but it is The Producers you dreamed it could be if someone just said “Let it rip and let it fly.”

Which is exactly what they’ve done.

It starts the minute you settle down in your seat and look at the set design. It is perfect. Stephen Gifford’s doorway to Max Bialystock’s office is based on that familiar image of the kind of schmutzy environment from which so many of Broadway’s miracles (and mishaps) emanate.

To say that Michael Matthews directs with high style would be accurate and yet hardly capture the clockwork quality of his staging, as if he were doing a jigsaw puzzle and getting the next piece spot-on every time. Added to this, it has a cinematic fluidity which gives the actors so much room to play around that when they move into that very place Matthews wants them to be, it doesn’t look like direction at all but rather as if was totally natural for the characters to get themselves into such knottily twisted physical arrangements. In short, the embodiment of finely tuned farce.

And now a word or two about Ms. Janet Roston’s deliriously wacky choreography — with just a few dancers in a pretty tiny space — that is just filled with references to dances from every musical you’ve ever seen, from Fiddler on the Roof to even two steps from The King and I, that is homage and tribute to all the great Broadway choreographers of the past while stamping the production with her own distinctive brand of gaiety and heart and a gorgeous sense of just plain fun. Are the dancers up to it? Well, they look as if they couldn’t be enjoying themselves more. Are they having any fun? It looked to me as if they couldn’t imagine being anywhere else or doing anything else. It is irresistible and Roston deserves full credit for providing them with just the sort of graceful clutziness that puts a smile on the face of any audience member not sucking on a sour lemon drop.

And, boy, did they cast the supporting characters brilliantly! First, there is Carmen Ghia, that feathery and slinky combination of hauteur and sexual inquisitiveness, who is the only way you can get through to his lover and boss, the generously bad director, Roger De Bris, whom those “producers” Bialystock and Bloom want to direct the worst play ever written (do I really need to give you the plot?); well, he is played by Andrew Diego with such a madcap idea of what being sexy and mysterious is that it transcends Camp and may actually remind you of someone you may know and who, most probably, may have hit on you in some dimly lit bar at one point or other. In Diego’s  fabulously relaxed manner, this portrait of Ghia may make you wish you hadn’t rejected that stranger in the bar.

As for De Bris, who else (I mean, who else?) but the grand and shameless Michael A. Shepperd could have played this part? He is so big and beautiful and looks so good in a sequined dress, that’d be more than enough, if it weren’t for the fact that when he opens his mouth to sing, you are suddenly in church on a Sunday morning. That tiny stage seems to literally expand and shake when he lets go.

And there is Ulla, the buxom Swedish bombshell, who knows too well that “If You’ve Got It, Flaunt It” and she is played to the hilt by Mary Ann Welshans (I didn’t understand most of what she said, but, then again, she speaks with the most absurd Swedish accent I’ve ever come across and she and it frequently made me laugh myself silly).

And the piece de resistance, the creme de la creme, the cherry on top of the sundae, in the role of Franz Liebkind, the Fuehrer-loving author of the worst play ever written — Springtime for Hitler — we have for your delectation, the genuinely amazing John Colella, who is on the very subtle edge of being over-the-top, thrusting himself into his musical numbers with such bravura that he instantly became the best Franz Liebkind imaginable. In fact, if someone wants to write a show entirely about Franz, look no further than Colella for inspiration.

I have no idea what Thomas Meehan’s contribution to the book is, except to stay as close as possible to the Mel Brooks screenplay and to make sure that none of the best jokes are lost. The music by Brooks is pure pastiche, memorable and forgettable at the same time, in the best tradition of Yiddish-tinged burlesque. The Celebration seems bent on overlooking this central conceit, I must admit, but, instead the company does a nicely sneaky job of revealing a truth that Brooks was a bit shy of coming out with — that The Producers is, at heart, a love story between two men, Max Bialystock and Leo Bloom. Brooks may suggest that keeping it gay is what it’s all about, but Celebration spells it out and in a very fair-handed manner.

But still. About this Jewish thing (and it can’t be ignored that the worst play ever written is an ode to Hitler, something only a couple of Jews might see as a bad idea), it lies pretty much at the center of the relationship between, let me repeat, two guys named Bialystock and Bloom.

So there’s Max Bialystock, a lecherous shyster who’s been around the block at least as many times as that guy running around the seven hills of Rome in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, and he is played here by Richardson Jones, who, to be polite, is more ham and cheese than pastrami on rye, but who also has an extraordinary voice and an equally extraordinary sense of comic timing and knocks that 11 o’clock number, “Betrayed,” out of the ball park. And, as for Christopher Jewel Valentin, who plays the scared-to-death-of everything accountant who gets caught up in Bialystock’s schemes, there is no hint of chopped liver and schmaltz when it is needed (and it is needed), but instead there is only apple pie a la mode, and yet he too sings and dances with more than enough charm to offset the idea that being Jewish is written into the show. But, and this is another of the many outstanding things about the production, this is an ensemble show, not a star vehicle. So anything goes. And it does.

And I can’t finish this review without mentioning E.B. Brooks’s terrific costumes.

If there is a better time to be had in any theater in Los Angeles, lead me to it. But I’m betting it’s a much better idea to see The Producers twice.

photos by Matthew Brian Denman

The Producers
Celebration Theatre
Lex Theatre, 6760 Lexington Ave. in Hollywood
Fri, Sat, Mon at 8; Sun at 2
ends on August 12, 2019 EXTENDED to August 26, 2109
for tickets, call 323.957.1884 or visit Celebration

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Rick Mechtly July 5, 2019 at 10:51 am

Stand by line tonite or dont bother?


Tony F July 5, 2019 at 11:09 am

You’ll have to call the theater for that info, Rick.


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