We’ve all seen great Broadway productions get turned into Hollywood movies, but you can probably count on one hand the number of films that have gone on to healthy, hearty second lives on the stage. But such is the special history of Virginia Rep’s production of The Producers, currently playing at the November Theatre. Based on Mel Brooks’s iconic 1968 film of the same name, The Producers comes barreling down Interstate 95 at us full-steam with all its Tony-Award-winning, Broadway-version bells, whistles, cornball jokes, and show-stopping musical numbers happily intact.
Both the film and musical turn on a nutty premise that taxes my English-major accounting skills: Broadway has-been Max Bialystock and neurotic accountant Leo Bloom scheme to make millions by producing a flop instead of a hit. This production rockets through the logic a bit too quickly for my math-challenged brain, but most folks know the story by now. Max and Leo know that a stage hit would force them to pay off a show’s investors immediately. But a flop that closes after only one performance would let them keep all their investors’ money and run off to Rio before anyone’s the wiser.
Exactly how you’d pull this off in real life–especially in our wizened, Excel-spreadsheet-driven, post-Wall-Street-meltdown world—might be a bit of a head-scratcher to 21st Century audiences. But no matter. This show is built on brawn, not brains, and what a hunk of brawn it is to behold. Max and Leo produce a flop musical called Springtime for Hitler, an outrageous romp featuring singing and dancing Nazis, those World War II villains my dad always called “the worst of the worst.” Here, as the flop turns into a surprise hit, director and choreographer Patti D’Beck knows how to make the performances triumph by using every inch of stage and every scrap of talent in the actors, including all of the excellent ensemble players who appear and reappear in so many guises that I lost track.
As Max, Jason Marks struts and bellows with all the authority of a man who probably wore size “husky” as a boy, but he still has the physical grace to carry each song and scene transition (and with nary a hint of Zero Mostel’s ferocious mugging from the 1968 film). Scott Wichmann is Max’s perfect physical and temperamental foil as Leo. From the minute he screams “I’m hysterical!” at the thought of their accounting rip-off, he alternates between convulsing jitterbug and dance-number dream, a modern-day Jerry Lewis who still has the vocal chops to sustain every note in every musical number.
Word to the wise: The Producers isn’t a show for young kids. Though even Mel Brooks himself might admit the musical’s jokes and Nazi references have turned a bit “shaggy dog” by now, the language, innuendo and sexual-preference-skewering are suitable only for high school students. But for parents overdue for a date night, this top-notch production is over-the-top in all the right ways, whether as a tribute to friendship, loyalty and improbable partnerships or as winner of Best Use Of A Swastika Ever In Costume Design (actually a pair of swastikas, if you please). So go ahead. If you’re ready for one more round with the worst of the worst, don’t miss this production by the best of the best.
The Producers presented by Virginia Rep runs now through January 13, 2013, at November Theatre. Purchase tickets at www.va-rep.org or by calling (804) 783-1688.
Reviewed by Tony Farrell