As my regular readers know, in order to support the art, every so often I will promote the arts by running ads for Chicago Area Productions, and when I can, and a show runs long enough to merit it, or I can see it before it opens in a short run, I write a review. I attended the performance of Up and Coming Theater's The Producers on Saturday, October 11. 2008.
Up and Coming Theatre and
District 214 Community Education
Short Review: This production of The Producers is a triumph of comedy, satire, song and dance that will leave you longing for more as you laugh and sing your way home.
Change your plans for this weekend and see Up & Coming Theatre’s The Producers on October 16, 17, 18 and 19th or you’ll regret it and your smarter friends will make fun of you. I am tempted to come a second and or third time, myself.
Forest View Theater
2121 S. Goebbert Rd
Arlington Heights, IL 60005
• Thursday, October 16 - 7:30 pm
• Friday, October 17 - 7:30 pm
• Saturday, October 18 - 7:30 pm
• Sunday, October 19 - 2:30 pm
• Call 847-718-7702 Mon - Fri 9 am to 4 pm
• Advance - $15 ($12 with Gold Card)
• Door - $18
Up & Coming Theatre’s current production of The Producers is nothing less than a triumph and I don’t use that term lightly. This production is a hysterical romp, a madcap express train riot and one of the most fun and exciting shows I’ve seen in a long, long time. The cast, full orchestra and crew provided a synthesis of acting, singing, dancing, directing, choreography, orchestra, crew, sets, lighting, and fantastic costuming that left me longing for more.
Director Susan Hamel kept this rollicking farce moving at lightning speed and seemed to never leave an opportunity for an actor or dancer to let a laugh pass by while somehow increasing the pace as the number onstage grew. Choreographer Jennifer Cupani’s marvelous work was not only breathlessly pleasing, but breathtakingly funny as well, and provided everyone in the show, from walker tapping grannies, to Max. Leo, Ulla and the “Springtime” water ballet dancers, a chance to shine as they danced, rolled, shaked, shimmied, Ullalated, Scotterized, or DeBris’d the audience into ecstascy, laughter, or hysteria, whatever the case may have been.
The Music Direction by Thomas Stirling was masterful. The Producers, Jorge Bermudez, Rich McMillan and Mario Manno are to be praised for allowing Stirling the resources to put together a 16-piece orchestra, and what an orchestra, not overpowering, note perfect, and perfectly nuanced, the orchestra provided the track on which this express hurtled so directly towards our hearts. His work with the singers and dancers was superb. While you can never tell what part of a performance’s success is due to the Director and Musical Director, when this many people get so much so perfectly right, you know that their hands must have been strong at the helm of this titan of a musical. I’d call it a Titanic success but this ship did not flounder!
The lighting and scenery by Chelsea Lynn and Robert Hamel respectively added to the fun. While Max’s office seems unremarkable, it is in other areas that the true creativity comes out, and boy does it come out! That’s all I can really say, some things have to be seen in person to be appreciated.
Getting back to Director Susan Hamel, her major triumph was in creating a cohesive whole out of what could have been an unconnected morass of individual bits and “here I am” performances, focusing them, drawing the best out of each performer, until the show had assumed a life of its own, a synergistic cohesion of magic, where a miracle has occurred beyond your wildest expectations. That’s The Producers I saw this weekend. More than worth the 35-mile round-trip I took (twice, I got lost the first time) to get there. It was worth the trip, and more.
This seemingly effortless cohesion of talent ran through the whole show, this cast knew what they could do, and they did it. They knocked the audiences socks off one toe at a time, and then slipped the socks back on so they could do it again.
Now I have to try to write about nearly 30 performers, each of whom in other shows I would probably single out. Oh the tragedy of it, oh the horror! I’m going to leave someone out! And that will be a tragedy, for The Producers, like many shows of its kind, depends upon the company as a whole to keep the show going in so many places, and in this production in particular, it is the company that is the star, from It’s Opening Night, through Along Came Bially, the mammoth, eye-bending, Springtime for Hitler, Prisoners of Love, and Goodbye, the company showcases the stars, but is itself the star, as each member is given their own moments to shine, time after time, after time, after time.
Certainly it helps that the singers can dance and the dancers can sing, the tappers can count, and sing, and dance all at the same time, and all can be funny when they are supposed to be too.
There is a lot of physical comedy in this show and something you just can’t get from a concert, though the music was certainly top quality. From Spidale’s death grip on his blankey, Hamel’s entreaty’s to God, Ulla’s well, Ullaating, Anthony Berg’s incredible antics as the crazed Franz Liebkind, John Boss’s continual antics from the first seconds of his entrance as DeBris to his last moments on stage, and most especially, Dan Naylor’s counter to type dramatic, flouncing, prancing, saucy, bouncy, leaping entrance as DeBris’ Choreographer Scott, complete with saucy belly moves that had young girls there to see him swooning (I saw them Dan, don’t let them deny it, there was swooning); the show’s physical comedy was brilliantly done and helped make the show such a smash hit.
I guess the lead actors helped too. What? Them too?
When meek and mild Leo Bloom (Bob Spidale) mentions off-handedly that a crooked Broadway producer could make more money from a flop than a hit; cynical has-been Max Bialystock (Nicholas Hamel) jumps on the idea – and Bloom – like a crazed mountain lion, starting the two on an misbegotten search for a play “so bad it has to fail”, that has a brilliance, talent and fervor that is a delight for the heart and ears.
Essential to the success of the show is that Hamel and Spidale gel nearly perfectly as comic foils and masters of physical comedy with their own unique talents having many surprises to give. Though both bear some resemblance to the originals, especially Spidale, you soon forget that and get lost in this company’s magical trek towards disaster.
Hamel is nothing less than fantastic as Bialystock, less knowing and cynical than Nathan Lane’s version of the role, his Max sings richer, dances with more grace and with moves that Mr. Lane could only fondly remember. Hamel’s Betrayed, the test of tests for any to attempt this role, is superbly and artfully performed with a deftness and mimicry of the others in the cast that brought roars from the audience. His comic timing and sense of the absurd delight the audience as he pushes Bloom along in Der Gutan Tag Hop-Clop and Keep it Gay. It seems clear that one day, you will remember that you saw Nicholas Hamel in person in a break-through performance for only $18, fondly, if you are clever enough to come.
Bob Spidale is also someone you may well remember seeing first here. His Max Bloom has a golden voice that makes all his songs a delight, but his emotive skills shine though especially in That Face, I Wanna Be A Producer, and that homage to friendship, ‘Til Him. I’d compare him too, but who care about "that guy" when you can see Spidale this weekend?
Like Hamel, Spidale is a great physical comic. Spidale’s sense of the vaudevillian hilarity is never so spot on as when he dives for his “blanky” or fights with Bialystock after the first night of their show. Spidale makes the audience laugh, roar and sigh, as he, Hamel and Malloy triangulate the movements of the audience’s funny bones all night long.
Sarah Malloy’s Ulla literally leaves male audience member’s jaws dropping* when “Ulla dance” and “Ulla dance again”. I turned around to look when I finally was able to wrench my eyes away; the things a critic must do for the art. My eyes are still annoyed at me for taking them off Ms. Malloy. Her husband is not.
Yet, Malloy’s acting and singing chops go far beyond Ulla’s bewitching belly blenderizing as she brings a joyous esprit to Ulla that makes her a joy to watch throughout the show.
Sarah Malloy’s voice as “Ulla Sings” is also quite splendiciously fine, and if her belting is not as loud as Ethel Merman’s, quite frankly, nobody minded, the sound was beautiful and so was she. Malloy’s singing in That Face is particularly beautiful and her performance in the last quarter of the show, as “Ulla acts” brings an almost insane excitement to the part. More importantly, Malloy played a funny, determined, intelligent Ulla, and I continually wondered who was pulling the strings as soon as she entered the story. This was a plot element missing from the modern version, and I liked it.
Well, you’ll have to see the show to see what else she delivered. It was a joy to watch her magnificent performance as Ulla the dancer. Here Malloy, surrounded by all the other dancers in the company not only held her own, but shone showing just how talented Malloy is, and how much more of her than “Ulla” we may see of her some day. *(I am told that the murmurs during intermission that photos N____e and S______a took of husbands with their jaws gaping open were available for sale at a small fee, is just a rumor. Surely participation in theatre could not lead our young youths astray?)
I am afraid it will be difficult to talk about John B. Boss’ performance as the untalented director DeBris with a straight face, he was so outrageously funny, it was only the cast’s rehearsal schedule that saved them from Tim Conway-it is, if you get it? Got it? Good.
John Boss’ DeBris goes beyond staggering in this unforgettably flamboyant performance that had the audience rolling each and every time he made his unique way onto the stage.
Boss’ acting, singing and dancing would have completely stolen any other show had not this cast; from curly tops and producer hats to baby blue tap dancing bottoms and storm trooper boots, not been so finely polished. Boss is a consummate actor, and in what could have been a two-note character part, he produces a symphony, with all the trills and flourishes that his comic imagination could provide, each moment building on the one before it, until that glorious moment when all is revealed and he tops himself once again. And amazingly, the company marches right along with him to glory.
I’ve seen Boss in any number of productions over the years; he’s entertained audiences in all kinds of roles from romantic but unmarried Bobby in Company to geriatric curmudgeon Scrooge in The Christmas Carol, but in this performance, he has outdone himself, going beyond all expectations, superceding all imagination and anything the movie has to offer. If for no other reason, you should see this production just to see John Boss’ DeBris. You will never, ever see anything like it again.
DeBris is the perfect vehicle for Boss who is a magnificent performer in his own right. Tall and bald, his DeBris is a queenly force to be reckoned with, yet played with all the fawning insecurity the part requires. His, um, how should I put it in a family blog, posse, I’ll use that spelling, Will Loftus as Carmen Ghia, Barry Blodgett as Brian, Michael DeFrang as Kevin (and the Soloist Storm Trooper in Springtime for Hitler), Dan Naylor as Scott, and Katy Smith as Shirley, were perfectly cast and perfectly funny. Frankly, I enjoyed this scene far more than I enjoyed it in the movie due to the combined efforts of the cast. Granted, the tension brought to the scene by Spidale and Hamel pushed the laugh index through the roof and Boss’s take no prisoners physical comedy approach made the audience scream. That was before Gary Peterson’s memorable entrance.
Later in the show, DeFrang’s solo in Springtime for Hitler was a showstopper. Superb. No other word for it. Then of course, John Boss entered as “you know who”. From that point on the laughter never seemed to end.
The most difficult part of this review is that there is so much to praise in this production and so little to criticize. I found nothing of note to criticize, and worse, there was something wonderful to point out about every actor on stage. In a cast this large, this makes the review start to take on the length of War and Peace, yet in this case, it might be worth it.
For example, while Will Loftus was amazingly funny and sincerely pathetic as Carmen Ghia, providing Boss a perfect counter-point all the way through the show, yet his deep bass solo near the top of the show in I Wanna Be A Producer is so rich and beautiful that it, in and of itself is worthy of a mention.
Anthony Berg’s startlingly amazing performance and dancing as Fritz Liebkind (and his birds) caught me completely by surprise. Berg brought just the right amount of madness and camp to his portrayal, yet when the time called for tension and drama, he was able to bring it within the lines of the character he had drawn. I doubt anyone who saw his hilarious singing and dancing performance as Fritz, will ever be able to forget it. He should go far.
So who do I leave out?
How about the beautiful and beautifully choreographed tap girls who steal the audiences hearts in I Wanna Be A Producer: it’s easy to single out the tall and beautiful Laura Berger and not-as-tall but beautiful Samantha Giovannetti, since they double as usherettes. At the same time, the gorgeous Nicole Giannelli, Erika Bradbury, Jodi Buczek and Katy Smith, blended perfectly with the others, making the tap girls a unified, funny and sexy unit throughout the show.
Or should I forget to mention the comic genius of “Not her!” Elaine Castor whose frenetic and persistent antics reminded me of the Ingénue in the Royal Shakespeare Company’s “The Critic” from the Chicago International Theatre Festival of the 1980’s? Both women decades apart gave me belly laughs and a near coronary. This company can’t be faulted for not swinging Castro in on a wire, it’s not in the script, but she tries to get back in the chorus line nearly every other way with fierce aplomb, yet in her other dancing characters, could not be a more graceful beauty or refined, if called for.
Speaking of costumes, follies girls Shannon Langland, Erika Bradbury, Mia Hirschel, and Toni Higgins-Thrash deserve special marks for bravery for wearing their staggeringly skimpy and ludicrously perfect costumes during Springtime for Hitler. Come to think of it, I really should have worked tech on this show. It’s only 70 miles round trip, quite reasonable really…
Don’t let me let this tiny bit of wit give the chorus girls short shrift. Their voices were heavenly and did much to make the Busby Berkeley meets Esther Williams choreography near the end of the show work its magic and their voices were as gracefully heavenly as they were. Yep, I really blew it on this one. I bet I could have been the pigeon wrangler…
Double casting was well hidden. There sure were a lot of Bialy girls. Who would suspect that Mr. Marks, The Indian, Donald Dinsmore, and a variety of walk-on storm troopers, theatergoers and prisoners were all played by the excellent, quick changing character actor Gary Peterson? Or that Barry Blodgett covered Bryan, Jason and Cop O’Brien? So, I’m not even going to go there.
Which brings us to the music overall. Stunning, enchanting, surprising, thrilling, powerful, balanced, audible, even, all parts heard, in short everything you want and expect from a show of this caliber. I heard every note and every note seemed to be wonderfully sung from virtually every cast member with a surprising virtuosity of singing from the dancers and dancing from the singers.
The full orchestra was a wonderful surprise, they were an asset to the show, never overpowering, and the actors never struggled to be heard over them, their voices floating easily above them. Tempo was never an issue as the show sailed along in perfect time.
Had this been merely a concert of the show, I doubt that the music could have been better, but it was so much more than that, with a richness of humor and surprises at every turn that made this Mel Brooks comedy, written in the old style of theatrical comedy fly by.
This is perhaps an excellent moment to talk about the virtually perfect tech and the amusing and clever scene changes all guided under the magnificent prowess of Stage Manager Dani Klosowski who kept the show running like a fine tuned Swiss watch. Since the back stage area of the show was undoubtedly busier than O'Hare at Thanksgiving, Klosowski and her crew deserve immense credit for brining off the amazing number of cast movements, sound and lighting cues, scene changes, prop and actor maneuverings and the thousands of little backstage details and riots that happen backstage, that must happen every night, so that what we saw on stage happens without a flaw.
The dance sequence after DeBris is signed up may be in the script, or it may have been improvised as a nod to the Mambo scene in Guys and Dolls, in any case it was a howl and covered effortlessly a scene change between DeBris' house and Bialystocks’ office with fun and esprit. Moments like this made the show fly by with fun and imagination. Keep your eye on who pulls those curtains though, I promise, it will be worth it. The sets and lighting were magnificent with too many touches to go on without spoiling the effect. But the big numbers were big and beautiful because of them. Robert Hamel’s sets deserve all the kudos they got after the show.
Other unsung Tech and Production Staff Heroes?
• Technical Director - Vlad Novikov
• Master Carpenter - Grant Wenger
• Scenic Designer - Bob Hamel
• Lighting Designer - Chelsea Lynn
• Sound Designer - Tom Scanlon
• Accompanist - Kelli Shibuya
• Props Coordinator - Michelle McDonagh
• Publicity - Phaedra Wells
• Production Assistant - Lindsey Weiss
(Anyone willing to type in the orchestra into a comment, please let me know!)
So, now you have a decision to make. Do you say to yourself, wow, what a review! Too bad I can’t go? Or do you pick up the phone and make a reservation? I can only urge you to go. It’s on your conscious now, but I’ll leave you with this thought.
I've been less consistent about writing this blog lately because of a massive back injury that has me in constant pain. I don’t usually mention it because while in comedy pain is funny, listening to whining about it is pathetic and boring. But I’ll tell you this, after 4 years of constant merciless pain ranging from 3-9 on a 10 point scale, I’m always in some level of discomfort. Always. So I was expecting to see this show after such a long ride through a wall full of misery and have to upgrade my opinion to compensate for the agony.
I'm not sure when the laughter became so overwhelming that I forgot my misery and just enjoyed the show, then became overwhelmed with laughter and was anesthetized by it completely, but the effects of the joy and laughter lasted through two acts, some talking with the cast, crew and audience after, the whole 35 mile trip home, and for several hours later, a painless interlude for which the cast and crew have now earned my undying friendship. It's literally been years since I've felt this good. Thank you for that. It might not be a miracle, but the laughs you gave me were the best over the stage medicine I’ve had in a long time.
Thank you to all concerned. If I left you out of this review, my profound apologies, just leave me a note and I will correct it. I hope to add the names of the musicians at a later date for the record.
Correction 10/15/08 Jodi Buczek tells me that I accidentally omitted the awesome Samantha Giovannetti. Probably not the first time someone has made the Giannelli/Giovannetti mistake during this production. I have still to clear up whether "Sam" was also one of the Usherettes. Nicole who I first gave that credit to is a brunette where as Sam is a blonde. I distinctly remember a blonde Usherette. But, was that a wig? So many mysteries. Guess I will just have to go back and see the show again. Corrections like this are most gratefully received.
Correction 10/16/08 Stage Manager and Technical Staff accidentally omitted were re-added to the review. Also on the cutting room floor. My sister had a baby this week, what can I say?
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