With book by Mel Brooks and Thomas Meehan, and music and lyrics by Brooks, The Producers has the distinction of having won the most Tony Awards (12 wins) of any musical ever staged, just in front of Hamilton (11). It is a fabulous musical, and this is the second attempt by Marie Clark Musical Theatre (MCMT) to bring it to an Adelaide stage. Their first was in 2021, but it had barely started when a state-wide COVID closure shut it down. Last week was meant to be the opening of the revival, but it too was shut down after COVID claimed several of the cast. This week’s performances are third time lucky!
The plot follows the shenanigans of conman Broadway producer Max Bialystock and his timid accountant Leo Bloom as they hatch and implement a plot to con millions out of their financial backers for a new musical – a gay musical romp called Springtime for Hitler. They plan for it to flop, but their machinations go terribly awry, and the show ends up being a huge success resulting in them both being sent to gaol for embezzlement.
The whole piece is farcical, uber-camp, absurd, deliberately over the top and oh-so-funny! It must be played with gusto and razor-sharp timing, and for the most part MCMT’s production achieves just that. The ensemble is energetic and always expressive, and their commitment and success in creating and sustaining the characterisations needed to make it all ‘work’ is undeniable. All the “featured dancers” are particularly impressive, especially Jake Hipkiss, Lachlan Washusen, Georgina Lumb and Deborah Proeve. The lead characters largely get the job done, and frequently (but not always) display the heightened passions and intense stylized expressiveness demanded by their characters. More on that later.
The action takes place in diverse settings – office, outside of theatres, inside theatres in rehearsal rooms and on stage, and in a pretentious domestic setting. Director Matt Smith and designer Jen Bais achieve all this using trucked furniture and scenic items (some a bit wobbly!), projections, and slick work by the floor and fly teams. The set changes are generally brisk and support the smooth flow of the action. Michael Bentley’s lighting design is a little patchy in parts, but the ‘big’ scenes, such as the pivotal musical number “Springtime for Hitler”, are bright, colourful and eye catching. His lighting brings out the detail in the excellent costumes designed by Narelle Lee, Rachel Lee, Merici Thompson, Ben Todd and Casey von Einem.
Mike Lapot and Celeste Barone’s choreography is at times impressive. The timing and ornamentation in “I Wanna be a Producer” is exciting, and the liveliness and inventiveness of “Along came Bialy” and “Springtime for Hitler” got the audience toe tapping in their seats. As can often be the case, the choreography in some solo songs (and duets) is under-done, with the emphasis often just on the vocals. A show like The Producers almost always needs to be chock full of activity and sharp on-stage business.
Musical Director Serena Cann leads a well-disciplined and capable ten-piece orchestra. Arguably, it could benefit from additional woodwind and strings. Narelle Schultz on piano frequently supplies a clear melody line against which the vocalists pitch with pleasing accuracy. Quality (and unobtrusive) sound engineering by Marty Gilbert ensures that the vocal work generally is clear and balanced with the orchestra.
Sam Davey plays Max Bialystock with energy, guile, and wile. At times his timing is a little too leisurely, and comic one-liners are sometimes left to deflate rather than assault the audience’s collective funny bone! Kristian Latella successfully develops Leo Bloom from a nervous and shy functionary to a confident, impatient but likeable white-collar conman. His characterisation could benefit from more decisive and exaggerated physicality, especially in the scenes with Lucy Trewin who played the ‘hired help’ Ulla. Trewin’s Ulla is suitably blonde and bimbo-ish but needs to ooze more seduction to contrast with Bloom’s naivety and lack of experience (and Bialystock’s rakishness).
Barry Hill plays the camp Roger De Bris with expected mannerisms, but it feels underdone and wants for more stylized affectation to distinguish De Bris as a pretentious individual and not just merely gay. However, Hill’s performance as Hitler in the show-stopping Springtime for Hitler number is on the mark! As De Bris’ sidekick Carmen Ghia, Ben Todd is wildly flamboyant, and he delights the audience with his antics. He does however border on being a caricature of a stereotypical effeminate man. When Carmen’s conduct draws rebuke from De Bris, Todd is at his best.
Gus Smith is the standout of the cast. His portrayal of the wanna-be Nazi Franz Liebkind is a clear example of what is referred to above as “intense stylized expressiveness”. His characterisation is convincing – we can almost believe that a real live fascist has inhabited the stage. His timing is crisp, his acting is intentional and has flair, and he plays ‘ludicrous ridiculousness’ with an almost unsettling conviction!
Marie Clark Musical Theatre has produced an enjoyable and unashamedly entertaining piece of theatre that has much to commend it, and they have produced it against incredible odds. This reviewer tips his hat. Bravo!