Schlockmeister Max Bialystock (Mike Sherman) and accountant Leo Bloom (Spenser Smith) have the same aspiration. As Bloom sings in an opening number of The Producers, “I wanna be a producer.” But his rationale is “’cause it’s everything I’m not.” He’s trapped in a dreary, repetitive life, the very opposite of Bialystock, whose career of resounding flops has not prevented him from carrying on as if he were a success. In fact, it’s Bialystock’s record of flops that convinces the pair that the real path to success is to create an impossibly bad show so they can take the money and run. Of course, best-laid plans seldom unfold as expected.
The chemistry between this latter-day odd couple yielded Broadway magic in 2001; Mel Brooks’ zany satire about the rollercoaster world of theater business won a record-breaking 12 Tony Awards. The Producers’ very tongue-in-cheek showbiz humor — ridiculous jokes, all manner of caricatures, especially gay theater types (lovingly rendered), and singing, dancing Nazis (you have to see them to believe how this all comes together) — made this show a perfect choice for Cincinnati Landmark Productions to launch its new venue, the Warsaw Federal Incline Theater.
Cincinnati Landmark’s founder and artistic director Tim Perrino has staged The Producers with a balance of delirium and verve. That’s most evident in his casting of Sherman and Smith in these hilarious roles. As Bialystock, Sherman wholly captures the scheming, schmoozing, crass guy who is never at a loss for one more tasteless way to generate backing for a show. His strong singing is supported by an impertinent demeanor; he’s constantly aware of being rude and he’s proud of it.
Smith is a nervous nebbish who longs to escape his drab existence but doesn’t have the chutzpah to do so until he meets Bialystock. His string-bean physicality, anxious eyes and overwrought demeanor make a wonderful arc of his evolution from an all-but-invisible accountant with a security blanket to the man of the hour. He gets some serious motivation from Ulla (Kalie Kaimann), the sexy, lithe assistant hired to manage their office. The Incline’s sound system projects Sherman’s and Smith’s confident vocal performances in perfect balance with the musical accompaniment. (Damon Stevens is the off-stage conductor.)
The Producers is full of outlandish characters. Kaimann’s performance stands out as the seemingly naïve Swedish sexpot Ulla who just might be smarter than the guys who hired her. Christopher Wylie plays Franz Liebkind, the Neo-Nazi author of Springtime for Hitler, the surefire flop they believe they can oversubscribe with underwriters and then abscond with the proceeds. Wylie has a big baritone voice, oversized stage presence and sense of humor that the role requires. (He’s backed by an amusing chorus of puppet pigeons.) Tom Highley and Gregory Bossler are well matched as Roger De Bris, an incompetent, egomaniacal director, and Carmen Ghia, his swishy “common-law” assistant.
The versatile chorus of 17 handles numerous costume and character changes as they portray everything from posh theatergoers and rich “little old ladies” (who dance using their walkers) to the cast of Springtime for Hitler that backfires into a hit. Costumer Caren Young provides humor and color with her designs.
Brooks’ songs for the show are conveyed with clarity: Wylie’s rendition of “Der Guten Tag Hop-Clop” is hysterical as he forces Bialystock and Bloom to dance with him. When the aspiring producers recruit De Bris, the most unsuccessful director Bialystock knows, the musical number “Keep It Gay” seems to guarantee their expectations of utter failure. Sherman and Smith sing “Where Did We Go Right?” in the wake of Springtime’s success — one review calls it “a satiric masterpiece” and another claims, “it was shocking, outrageous, insulting … and I loved every minute of it.” The Producers is a masterpiece of schlock, and the Incline’s production pushes every possible button.
The Producers takes advantage of the Incline Theater’s features. The spacious proscenium allows for quick but effective scene changes; there’s plenty of room for Maggie Perrino’s energetic choreography. On opening night a few, tiny technical glitches with sound and lighting came and went, but they will surely be absent in subsequent performances.
Max Bialystock and Leo Bloom were surprised by their show’s success. Tim Perrino and his Cincinnati Landmark crew should not be surprised: They’re not wanna-be producers. They’ve built a new theater and opened it with a highly entertaining production. In fact, their efforts have proved so successful that most performances are sold out. If you care to see The Producers, check for a waiting list for tickets.
THE PRODUCERS , presented by Cincinnati Landmark Productions at the Warsaw Federal Incline Theatre, continues through June 21.