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Review: American Stage hits 'The Producers' out of the park

Matthew McGee, James LaRosa and Jim Sorensen in American Stage's The Producers. Photo by Kara Goldberg.
Published Apr. 23, 2018

ST. PETERSBURG — Without question, Mel Brooks' The Producers carved a more indelible mark than most of the musicals in the entire genre of throwaway musicals it parodied.

The creator of Get Smart and Blazing Saddles not only co-wrote the adaptation of his own 1967 movie, he composed the music and wrote the lyrics, all while maintaining a militantly juvenile sense of humor that rejects even the idea of artistic significance. For American Stage to select, for its park production, a comedy built around what was funny 50 years ago, a time when millions found Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In hilarious, might seem a bit of a risk. That chancy element grows when two categories of jokes contained therein echo some the darkest corners of the news — the sexual appetites of powerful men and resurgent Nazism.

Director Rye Mullis et al took on the challenges, did not shrink from the risks, and came up with a major hit. The Producers is funny and topical, well-acted, danced, lit, costumed, staged and sung.

The story centers on an oddly matched pair, jaded Broadway producer Max Bialystock and his wannabe right-hand man, accountant Leo Bloom. Matthew McGee and James LaRosa establish Bialystock and Bloom in a lengthy slapstick sequence at the top of the show, as if doing all of the most difficult work first. McGee plays the cigar-chomping cynic with great assurance, swooning or scowling, issuing a caustic "shaddup!" or being moved by the first genuine friendship of his life.

LaRosa makes a wonderfully flustered Leo, and his voice is one of the elements that keeps this show humming along on a high level.

Characters follow in a virtual hit parade. Jim Sorensen ratchets up the comic dimension to another level as Franz Liebkind, the hapless Hitler fan whose musical Max has chosen as a ticket to riches, not because it's good. His rooftop tribute, In Old Bavaria, sets the tone by which the show handles its many references to the Third Reich, not as a evil war machine but a collection of stumblebums and misfits without confusing one dimension with the other.

Gretchen Bieber dazzles as Ulla, the Swedish assistant and aspiring star. Her shimmies and shakes in the showstopping, When You've Got It, Flaunt It, show a crafty mind using the symbolism of the casting couch to get in on the action. Far from a dumb blonde, this Ulla credibly rivals Max as a criminal mastermind.

Scott Daniel's job as the crossdressing director Roger Debris adds another indispensable link to the recipe that made the Broadway show legendary. The role comes into focus when Liebkind literally breaks a leg and Debris must stand in for Adolf Hitler. Max and Leo hope the show will tank so badly they will be able to legitimately escape to Rio with cash from investors. Daniel's marvelously conflicted, starstruck turn as the faux fuhrer (Heil Myself) gives the show-within-a-show its credibility as a smash hit.

And it just keeps going, one dazzling performance or song after another. The strength of this ensemble also should not — and will not, by anyone with eyes to see and ears to hear — be missed. I did not see the Broadway show starring Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick. A friend whose judgment I trust did, and said that the American Stage version is different but equal. The elements come together in Springtime for Hitler, when the stage swims with red, swastika-bearing flags, showgirls and blue-eyed blond Aryan officer (Trenton Bainbridge) unfurling Brooks' depiction of evil in all its ridiculousness. It's genuinely moving as well, because in this number Mullis and the theater stand firmly behind a script and imagery that could easily be assailed as unforgiveable today, even in jest.

The success lies in a steady focus on the story and it's real subtext, an odd-couple friendship with in a sendup of musicals. That confidence and rock-solid cast has produced the best American Stage in the Park musical in years.

American Stage leaders also announced next year's park production at Friday's opening night gala. It's Mamma Mia!, a musical built around hits of the Swedish pop group, Abba, which will run April 10 through May 12, 2019.

Contact Andrew Meacham at ameacham@tampabay.com or (727) 892-2248. Follow @torch437.

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