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Superb cast salvages “The Producers” at Croswell Opera House June 22, 2009

Posted by ronannarbor in Entertainment, Theatre.
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First — there are huge fans of Mel Brooks’ musical THE PRODUCERS, and there are those who are not (me) 12 Tonys notwithstanding (I voted for “The Full Monty”). It’s an actor’s dream to perform these roles — its another task entirely to sit for three hours in an audience being inundated with mean-spiritedness.

The Producers is an example of a show that worked so well on Broadway with its primarily NYC-based audiences; and a show that faltered in its national tour, and eventually closed when NYC audiences dissipated and it needed to rely on tourists, who didn’t find it as funny nor as entertaining as the apparently more-informed NYC audiences did. It also relied on the star power of Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick — two performances permanently burned into the retinas of audience goers for these roles.

That being said — the cast at Croswell Opera House is as superb as you can expect in an amateur production of the show. Steve Antalek is a fine Max Bialystock, and Patrick Toth a fine Leo Bloom (even if he is 15 years too young for the role). Lucy Hagedorn shines as Ulla, and Jim Craig is a funny Roger DeBris. Special kudos to Jesse Montie who has a pitch-perfect interpretation of Carmen Ghia, and Stephen Smith’s athletic Franz (another actor who is at least 20 years too young for the part).

There is also more good: the orchestra sounds wonderful under the direction of Jonathan Sills, and the costumes by Susan Eversden are literally stunning.

But then there is the bad: the sound is spotty with several mic problems during the course of the performance – but more importantly, some totally missing mic-work — solo lines are inaudible in the house; important lines in songs disappear; and when the ensemble sings one primarily hears only the leads who are on body mics. The opening number is a cacophony of mumbo-jumbo that even those of us who know every word of this show had a hard time making out. “We wanted to stand up and hiss….we’ve seen shit, but never like this” was completely unintelligible, and it’s one of the funniest lines in the show.

The choreography is lacking. “I want to be a producer” is sloppy and poorly choreographed. The taps can not be heard through most of the number, and this is the one place in the show where clean, efficient tapping is required. It’s not the girls fault — they do what they can with a mess of tap steps that do nothing to emphasize the rhythm of the song nor to build to any type of climax. Time steps and shuffles alone do not make for a Broadway tap number. “Springtime for Hitler” is inherently funny — the choreography in this production does nothing to build the number to what it could be; and at times seems to work against it by forcing motions into space that doesn’t fit. The swastika-dance looks great on a big stage when a mirror can be flown in to show the “Busby Berkley” effect of the swastika rotating on stage…here, it just looks like messy marching.

Then there is the ugly: the set design. This is just plain old gawd-awful. It ranges from serviceable (Roger’s apartment) to Junior-High quality (the scenes outside the theatre; and the “Springtime for Hitler” sign that flies in at the end of Act I — which is so awful that Junior High quality might be giving it too much credit.) The paint is not thick enough on the canvas drops, and light shines through from behind (a problem that plagued last year’s A CHRISTMAS CAROL at the Croswell also). The lettering throughout is sloppy and unprofessional. The lettering for the Whitehall and Marks backdrop looks like a high school cheerleading sign hanging in a hallway. The set design is cringe-inducing in it’s awfulness. Even the better pieces have problems — Roger’s apartment doesn’t fit together well on stage (or they missed their marks during the Sunday afternoon performance that I saw) and the lovely Little Old Ladyland heart is fronted by a poorly painted sloppy looking bench.

Therein lies the crux of the matter — The Producers, despite spoofing the “worst show ever” can’t LOOK like the worst show ever. It’s a budget-squashing show that is far more expensive than it looks in the finished product, and it is exactly because of that budget that the show works in professional venues.

What Croswell has is a fine ensemble cast that is stunningly costumed standing in a shell of a set — and it doesn’t work that way. Sloppy graphics and lettering, poorly painted drops, and slow-moving scene changes undo the effort that the cast has put into this show.

I laughed. I know the show inside and out. Everything that worked in this show worked because of the fine and funny script, the great singing voices, and the fine direction of Mark DePietro whose sense of timing, comedy, and efficient stage-work is clearly seen throughout the show. I wish I could say more positive things about the show, but I can’t.  Perhaps my expectations of the Croswell have become too high over the years — but they SHOULD be that high — this is the best Summer Stock in the region.

For the record, Croswell is the only non-professional theatre where I would personally audition for a show. My heart is in directing and choreography, not in performance. But I respect certain directors and some specific shows. I was in last year’s Croswell production of Titanic, the Musical, because it is one of my favorite shows. I was indeed cast in this production of The Producers, but chose not to participate for personal reasons. I look forward to auditioning at Croswell again if the right combination of show and director comes along down the road and my schedule permits. I am also a supporting member of the Croswell Opera House.

There are a slew of other productions of THE PRODUCERS slated for local venues, including one in Ann Arbor this fall. Word of warning to all of them — this is going to be the most expensive musical you have ever produced, and if you don’t have the money to spend, tread carefully.

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