By Pat Launer
Something funny happened midway through “The Producers” at the Spreckels Theatre. (That’s funny-peculiar, not the expected funny ha-ha).
The plot revolves around a scheming, has-been Broadway producer and his wimpy accountant, who cook up a ruse that will make them more money producing a bad show than a good one.
In this contentious, highly-charged political season, certain elements of the show suddenly took on new, heavily-weighted significance: like, spending other people’s money for your own personal gain; or, telling someone to shoot other people to solve your problems. And then, there’s the loonily fascistic Führer singing, “Heil to me!” It all made me squirm a bit (a response I’ve never had to the show before, in several prior viewings), and it put something of a darker pall over the proceedings.
Based on the 1968 film of the same name, the wacky 2001 musical was adapted by Mel Brooks and Thomas Meehan. Brooks wrote the music and lyrics. The show still holds the record for Tony Award wins (at 12, one more than “Hamilton,” which kind of boggles the mind). Unlike the current history-based blockbuster, “The Producers” offers only sheer entertainment — with no pretensions to educational or intellectual value.
But it does go way beyond the bounds of good taste, not to mention political correctness and polite language. It brags of being “an equal opportunity offender.” It also pokes fun at every aspect of theater, while paying homage to many musical classics (the subverted use of “Fiddler” choreography is especially yummy). It’s also, at many junctures, flat-out hilarious.
Yet, at San Diego Musical Theatre, despite a powerful, attractive and well-sung production, the humor feels tamped down and the weak facets of the show are somehow more glaring.
There are side-splitting moments and characters, to be sure: Russell Garrett’s prancing Roger Debris, for instance, the swishy director and last-minute star of “the worst play in history,” “Springtime for Hitler.” And as his ultra-fey assistant, Carmen Ghia, Luke Harvey Jacobs is a hoot. Siri Hafso is a knockout as Ulla, the Swedish secretary cum actress, whose legs and moves deserve star billing (and, tapping into her ancestry, her Swedish accent ain’t bad, either).
The ensemble is strong, with amusing and noteworthy multi-character turns by locals Tony Houck and Paul Morgavo.
At the center, working and playing hard, hitting all their marks, are John Massey as the overblown (in every sense) Max Bialystock and Brian Banville as the milquetoast Leo Bloom. Though Banville’s physical comedy and pratfalls are convincingly comedic, neither of the leads seems to be preternaturally funny. So, some of the most side-splitting lines somehow fall flat.
They do have their moment of hilarity; still, Banville isn’t quite nerdy enough (though his blankie-hugging meltdowns are pretty uproarious), and Massey doesn’t read as Jewish at all, though his Yiddish accent, in the one line he has to use it, is convincing — as convincing as Nathan Lane’s was — and he’s not Jewish either. But that New York Jewish hondler sensibility seems to be missing. In fact, the most Jewish part of this production is that Jewish Family Service is the recipient of a portion of SDMT’s You Give/We Give program’s donation proceeds.
Native-born San Diegan Jamie Torcellini keeps the action lively, and Janet Renslow’s choreography maintains most of the humorous moves of the original production.
The design is solid (except some of the flimsier scenic elements were prone to tipping or near-falling the night I was there); Los Angeles-based Christopher Scott Murillo captures all the required locales, which are expertly lit by Michael von Hoffman. Kevin Anthenill’s sound varies; some of Brooks’ most ingenious lines and rhymes are lost, particularly in the chorus numbers. Beth Connelly’s costumes are superb, including those outrageous (and by now, iconic) headpieces and getups for the chorus girl stunners in the big “Springtime for Hitler” number.
Ace music director/conductor Don LeMaster makes a 19-piece orchestra sound like twice that many — a brassy, Broadway sound that perfectly suits the material.
Overall, it’s a potent production, not as funny as it could be, but as brash and irreverent as you could want.
- “The Producers” runs through Oct. 9 at the Spreckels Theatre, 121 Broadway in downtown San Diego
- Performances are Thursday at 7:30 p.m., Friday-Saturday at 8 p.m., Sunday at 2 p.m.
- Tickets ($30-$70) are available at 858-560-5740 or online at www.sdmt.org
- Running time: 2 hr. 45 min.
Pat Launer is a long-time San Diego arts writer and an Emmy Award-winning theater critic. An archive of her previews and reviews can be found at patlauner.com.