Is there anything more disconcerting than applauding for Hitler?
To celebrate their 150th performance, Music Theater Works decided to go big with the twelve-time Tony Award-winning musical, Mel Brooks’ “The Producers,” at the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts in Skokie. As the evilest man in modern history tap dances and cracks jokes, furtive glances amongst the audience projected a collective telepathic thought: “Should I be enjoying this?”
And that’s exactly what the show’s two blundering protagonists want you to think!
Boisterous blowhard Broadway producer Max Bialystock (Thomas M. Shea) is disgraced following his latest flop and must resort to seducing octogenarian women to pay his bills. Broke and out of options, Bialystock is defenseless against neurotic accountant Leo Bloom (David Geinosky), who bursts into Bialystock’s office seeking to get his foot in the door of the theater business. Bloom’s review of the books uncovers a loophole, that they could make more money by swindling investors if a show flops than if it succeeds.
Together, they plot to produce a program guaranteed to fail. They decide on “Springtime for Hitler,” written by nostalgic Nazi Franz Liebkind (Sam Nachison), and starring their salacious Swedish secretary, Ulla (Kelsey MacDonald). To helm the production, they recruit director Roger De Bris (Steve McDonagh)—a flamboyant crossdresser—and his equally outrageous assistant, Carmen Ghia (Eustace J. Williams), promising them that they will make the production “as gay as possible.”
This all leads up to the show’s crown jewel, a schmaltzy scene with Hitler descending a high staircase flanked by tap-dancing chorus girls and guys under two large red banners emblazoned with black swastikas and framed by a sparkling proscenium. (I bet choreographer Darryl K. Clark never anticipated adding this to their resume!)
Every performer leans hard into their characters. Shea as Bialystock is every Jackie Gleason persona rolled into one. Geinosky plays Bloom like a flesh-and-blood SpongeBob SquarePants—naïve, nasal-voiced and with the same nervous laugh, AhAhAhAhAh! MacDonald as sexpot Ulla is titillating and Nachison’s effeminate Franz draws laughs with every “unt” and “yaah.” The director and assistant duo of McDonagh and Williams are larger than life, charming and effervescent. True, they are stereotypical archetypes, but there are no soft edges, and delivery of every line is sharp and fast-paced.
What isn’t fast-paced is the show as a whole. Unnecessary musical numbers—like a slow ballad in a courtroom near the end—feel like padding.
I agree with real-life director L. Walter Stearns’ note in the program, that “This show has a little something to offend everyone.” The goal is not to offend for the sake of offending, however, but to shine a literal spotlight on tropes and mores, making them too outlandish to ignore.
“I was never crazy about Hitler,” said Brooks in a 2001 interview, “If you stand on a soapbox and trade rhetoric with a dictator you never win… That’s what they do so well: they seduce people. But if you ridicule them, bring them down with laughter, they can’t win. You show how crazy they are.”
Turning Hitler into a prancing dandy turns him into a joke—a fitting epithet—and the more people that go to laugh at him, the better.
Music Theater Works presents Mel Brooks’ “The Producers” at the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts, 9501 Skokie Boulevard, through August 20. Tickets are $39-$106 at northshorecenter.org.