In a note that’s found in the program for The Players’ new production of The Producers, director Christopher Margadonna expresses some hesitation about mounting this production in our current political climate. “Will the jokes land? Will people think this is too offensive?” he wonders.
I found myself thinking a similar thing as I took my seat. In today’s world, where everything that happens every day is so ominous and dark, would it feel like a good use of time to spend three hours engaging in something so light and frivolous?
After the show, as I walked out of the theater amidst a crowd full of smiling, laughing people, it became clear that the answer was a resounding yes.
In case you’re unaware of the story (having not seen the original movie, the original stage adaptation of the movie, or the movie adaptation of the stage adaptation of the movie), The Producers tells the story of Broadway producer Max Bialystock (John K McElroy II), who has gone from the toast of New York to a pathetic schlub seducing old women for seed money. One day, he’s visited by a milquetoast accountant named Leo Bloom (Tyler Rebello), who off-handedly figures out that it could be possible to make more money from a flop than from a hit. The two embrace the plan, and set out to find the worst play (an elegy to Adolf Hitler written by a former SS officer played by Ian Hudgins), hire the worst director (a campy cross-dressing musical maven played by Anthony DeRose), and cast the worst collection of actors imaginable. The results, as you can expect, do not go as planned.
The first thing that struck me was about the show itself: Despite being a relatively modern musical (it debuted on Broadway in 2001), The Producers hasn’t actually aged all that well. Margadonna says in his director’s note that the show “offends everyone equally,” but I respectfully disagree. The show makes a lot of jokes at the expense of the characters to be sure, but much like the original 1967 movie, it also spends a lot of time making fun of the gay community (there’s even a huge musical number called “Keep it Gay”). These sorts of jokes were acceptable in the 1960s, and no doubt also perfectly acceptable on 2000s Broadway, but to me, in Providence in 2019, it felt far more like laughing AT someone then laughing WITH them, and based on the tepid response to those scenes, it sure seemed like the audience agreed with me.
As for the production itself, The Players should be commended for putting everything they had into a truly demanding show, resulting in a fun and enjoyable night out. Margadonna has assembled a truly eclectic and talented cast, all of whom are leaving absolutely everything on the stage. Each performer has at least one moment to shine in the show, whether it’s a hilarious ensemble number (“Along Came Bialy,” for example), or a perfectly placed joke in a quiet moment (an old woman hacking and coughing her way off stage during an otherwise tender moment was just terrific). However, three performers stood out for me as deserving special mention.
As the larger-than-life Max Bialystock, John K McElroy II has the entire show resting on his shoulders, and he more than delivered. He brought the appropriate amount of bombast and intensity to the role, leading to moments that legitimately had us laughing out loud, and his impressive singing voice made all of his numbers (most especially the show-stopping “Betrayed”) truly enjoyable.
There are a lot of “dumb blonde” roles in musicals, and The Producers is no exception. But the role of Ulla is more difficult than most, since it is an example of a theatrical trope, in a show that makes fun of theatrical tropes. The actress who plays her has to be in on the joke, without letting on that she is, otherwise the entire bit will seem obvious. Dalita Getzoyan provides the perfect amounts of innocence and savviness. When combined with an absolutely stunning singing voice (her “When You’ve Got it, Flaunt It” is the musical highlight of the show), she commands your attention every time she’s on the stage.
For my money, the ensemble is usually the most challenging part of any show. You have to play multiple roles (sometimes in back-to-back scenes) and you can’t have a single down moment. From the first moment she appears on the stage, Morayo Akande struck me as poised and professional, with a winning smile and the easy confidence of a performer who truly knows what she’s doing. She added enough to her scenes that I found her performance worthy of special mention.
On the production side, the crew should be extremely proud of what they were able to do with their limited space and resources. Director Christoper Margadonna has done a great job of moving his performers around in (mostly) natural ways, and using the entire space to provide an interactive experience for the audience. Scenic designer Dan Clement (with assistance from Sharon Carpentier and Roger Lemelin) created multiple interesting sets, ranging from offices to rooftops to Broadway stages, without the long pauses that plague so many community theater productions. Musical director Joseph Carvalho was able to cobble together a professional-sounding orchestra with a small band. Most especially, I want to call out the costume stitchers (Diane Eddy, Donna Matthews, Allyson Schiller, Lori Moniz, and Ellen Monaghan) for producing a truly stunning number of unique costumes (designed by Jillian Eddy).
We are living through some pretty intense times, but if you (like me) could use a night out that’s simply fun, The Producers is a great bet.
The Players at Barker Playhouse present Mel Brooks’ The Producers runs through Oct 20 at The Barker Playhouse, 400 Benefit St, PVD. For tickets, playersri.org/ticketing