By Adam Cohen
Mel Brooks’ Tony award-winning musical comedy The Producers, based on his 1968 film, has been winningly and lovingly revived at the Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn, New Jersey. Given our geopolitical climate, there is nothing more rewarding and nurturing than tucking into a familiar favorite with a bright, charming cast; spectacular dancing; and feeling one’s face smiling and chest heaving laughter alongside Mr. Brooks’ show. The musical features a book written by Thomas Meehan and Mr. Brooks, with music and lyrics by Mr. Brooks and the original Broadway direction and amazing choreography by Susan Stroman. This is a spry, witty, enjoyable production that has been rendered comfortably at Papermill by the team of director Don Stephenson and choreographer Bill Burns. Fifteen years after originally opening on Broadway, New Jersey has one richly rewarding production of The Producers.
For those new to the story, Max Bialystock is a fading Broadway producer. His best days and productions are behind him and his latest flop – a musical Hamlet closes on opening night. Max’s productions are funded by a loving set of older women who he romances with a back “filled with denture marks.” His accountant, Leo Bloom quickly realizes they can make more money from a flop than a hit. A plan is hatched and Leo’s dream of becoming a Broadway producer are quickly realized – once they find the worst script, director, choreographer, lighting designer, and performers. That their loser script involves Hitler and Nazis is part of the satire. This is a fun, old-fashioned musical romp with amazing performances, very well-executed costumes and totally and politically incorrect gags.
The production is filled with an immense sense of fun, dazzling dance and some high-wattage compelling performances. Michael Kostroff is definitely (and thankfully) his own Bialystock. With bulging eyes, akin to the crony Marty Feldman and with stamina, supple voice, way with a gag, and expressions help make this Max resilient, charming, and entertaining. This is difficult considering the legacy of original Broadway and subsequent musical film star Nathan Lane and the 1968 film’s Zero Mostel. Kostroff’s resilience, voice, and humor are used to especially good affect. David Josefsberg as Bloom has a wonderful voice and subtle charm. He brings plenty of flop sweat and neuroses to the role. Josefsberg holds his own especially in scenes with Kostroff and the winsome Ashley Spencer as Swedish bombshell secretary/receptionist/actress Ulla. Spencer has a lovely singing voice. The Swedish accent jokes are underwhelming especially with her droll, slow delivery which plays like ripping off a bandaaid – you know it’s coming and it hurts in the moment.
Kevin Pariseu is a hoot as Roger De Bris – director of the show within a show. He’s got a beautiful singing voice and a boisterous presence well matched by his “common law assistant” Mark Price. John Tracey Egan reboards the show as playwright Franz Liebken replete with pigeon puppets and a killer characterization (Eagen played several parts over the course of the show’s Broadway run). The ensemble brings unique characterizations to the various roles they play – from theatergoers, Nazi’s, little old ladies. This is a strong production – fun, witty, and thoroughly enjoyable from start to finish.
The Producers’ gleeful utter disrespect is key to its enduring charm – especially in this rich, highly entertaining, engaging production. There’s never been a better time to go see this bright, funny, show, which is filled with wit from start to finish. The precision of the direction and choreography, amazing costumes by William Ivey Long and scenic design by Robin Wagner are equally alluring as the pert, expert performances add up to a wonderful evening.