Book by Mel Brooks and Thomas Meehan
Music and Lyrics by Mel Brooks
Directed by and Choreographed by Chris Suchan
Produced by Toby’s Dinner Theatre of Columbia
Reviewed by Ted Ying
Where did they go right? Since Zero Mostel first asked that in the original 1968 movie, every Max Bialystock has wanted to know. Toby’s in Columbia has produced a solid production of The Producers in which they have gone right in many areas.
Max Bialystock, once the “King of Broadway”, is a washed up Broadway producer. Leo Bloom, an accountant, comes to review Max’s books. When he observes that you could make more money on a flop than on a hit by raising more capital than you need and closing the show early (and keeping the extra money), Max’s few remaining scruples fly out the window. Max convinces Leo to help him produce a guaranteed flop. They find the worst script in town, “Springtime for Hitler”, written by former Nazi, Franz Liebkind. They get the worst director in town, the flamboyant, Roger DeBris and his flaming gay artistic team They put together the worst show in town, which ends up being a hit because the audiences think the show is hysterically funny. The police accidentally catch Max and the books and Leo takes the money and runs off to Rio de Janeiro with their beautiful and buxom secretary, Ulla. When Max is brought to trial, Leo appears and turns himself in due to his friendship and devotion to Max. After spending some time producing shows in Sing-sing and getting time off for good behavior, Bialystock and Bloom return to produce on Broadway once again for a happy ending for all.
Where did Toby’s go right? They started with a talented cast. Such is the depth of Toby’s talent pool that the ensemble includes several performers who have had lead and major feature roles in other recent productions. And they don’t disappoint. The production numbers truly sparkle as the ensemble dance and sing their hearts out. Of particular note were the ensemble members who played Roger DeBris’ artistic team (Joseph Thanner, Terrence Sweeney, David Jennings and Tina DeSimone) who along with Roger Debris (Lawrence B. Munsey) and his common-law assistant, Carmen Ghia (Darren McDonnell) bring down the house in the hilarious “Keep It Gay” number. Munsey gives one of the stronger performances and manages to carry off the flamingly hilarious role of Roger DeBris. Adam Grabau delights the audience as the hilarious ex-Nazi, Franz Liebkind. And every red-blooded male in the room couldn’t help but notice Elizabeth Rayca as the stunning Ulla. Rayca proves to be talented as well as beautiful as she opens up and belts out Ulla’s signature song “When You’ve Got It, Flaunt It”.
Unfortunately, the features steal the show from the leads. David Bosley-Reynolds does a sound job as Max Bialystock. He throws his all into the role and manages to capture the humor and the character of Max. He sings the part well and brings down the house with his eleven o’clock number, “Betrayed”. His pattered recap of the show-including a very entertaining personalized intermission-would do Nathan Lane proud. Jeffrey Shankle as Leo is one of the most talented performers on the stage. He sings out the Mel Brooks’ tunes in a voice that Matthew Broderick would have loved to have had. He also dances extremely well. And he manages to carry off the humor well enough to get all of his laughs. Unfortunately, his Leo lacks warmth. Leo should be the charming geek that everyone loves. Instead, Leo feels cold and distant. He lacks chemistry with either Max or Ulla, two key relationships in the show. There was much more chemistry between Roger DeBris and Carmen Ghia than between Leo and either of his key scene partners. Hopefully opening weekend nerves will fade and Shankle will warm up to the role and the audience. Even without the chemistry to make this show really shine, the entire cast, including the leads, manages to capture the humor and provide a very funny show.
Director/choreographer, Chris Suchan toured with this show and was clearly influenced by Susan Stroman’s original choreography, borrowing some for this production. The choreography is crisp and well executed. Suchan also does a good job of keeping the show moving. The book is more fluff than substance and full of burlesque-style humor that requires fast pacing. Fortunately, the cast was up to the task and the audience was very amused. However, despite having performed in the round (and Toby’s in particular) before, Suchan did not block the show well for theater in the round. This reviewer sat to the left of the main entrance door facing the kitchen and the Schubert Theater sign. A significant majority of the show was blocked to face away from us and we saw far more than our share of the performer’s back sides. For example, all of the humorous casting couch scenes in Max’s office were blocked from view by the couch that was full back to us.
Munsey also served as the costume designer and did an admirable job. The ensemble always looked their part and the assorted characters that joined in the final conga line for “Keep It Gay” were sartorially hysterical. Ulla’s dresses showed her at her best and despite some ideas being stolen from the original Broadway production, the costumes from the play-within-the-play “Springtime for Hitler” bowled the audience over with laughter. And although he was not there for the performance we saw, Christopher Youstra’s band did an excellent job with the music of this show. Greg Knauf conducted a solid performance of the small combo.
Technically the show varied a great deal. Lighting designer, Lynn Joslin, did an excellent job of lighting the show. However, there were several instances of performers missing their mark and either dancing or singing in shadows between lights. The sound crew had some trouble with the microphones and some sound effects such as gunshots fired at the wrong times.Large projection screens were mounted in the four corners of the theater to add some visuals to the show However, the screens were not properly synced or focused, which hopefully will be sorted out in future performances.. This production of The Producers may be a little low on production values but fortunately not low on humor.
This show has stood the test of time. It was funny in 1968 as a movie; it was funny when Brooks brought it to Broadway in 2001 and it remains a funny show. Fortunately, most of the problems with the show can be cleaned up with some attention and repetition. With a strong cast, a good band playing a good score and a funny book that will keep the audiences laughing,
Running Time 3:00 including one 20-minute intermission
When: Through November 23, Tue-Sat evenings 8:00 PM, Thu & Sun matinees 12:30 PM, doors open 2 hours before show time, buffet served 15 minutes after doors open.
Where: Toby’s Dinner Theater, 5900 Symphony Woods Road, Columbia, MD
Tickets: $46.00 – $51.00, children $32.50 – $51.00
Info: 1-866-99TOBYS or 301-596-6161 or on the website.
Thanks for the feedback. I have been attending shows off-and-on for ten years at Toby’s. Yes, theater in the round is very difficult and sometimes different approaches are required. Having seen productions in the round before with a floating couch, one theater chose to use a couch with a much lower back (similar to a chaise) that didn’t block the sight lines as much. Another possibility includes thinking about something that was cut from the script. In the script, at the beginning of Act II, Ulla supposedly redecorates their office. In the Broadway and touring productions, this was shown by her having painted the entire office white and included some gags about her decorating skills. This could have been used to relocate the furniture so that the sight gags of the couch scene in Act II would be facing different audiences. Then everyone would have had the benefit of seeing some of the couch scenes. This is what I meant by not being particularly focused on directing for the round. A director needs to be sensitive to such problems and with some thought can usually find a solution. Toby herself and one or two of the other directors that have directed in her space are slightly more adept at dealing with the full extent of the issues involved in this challenging space. My experience comes from acting, directing and producing local theater. I have worked in the 3/4 round (audiences on 3 sides) as has my wife and from an acting, directing and audience standpoint, I try to be sensitive to how all of the audience will perceive the show.
As for Mr. Howards’ reviews on Broadway.com, I was sent the article, but did not read it until after I had sent in my review. Yes, it was a coincidence that we noted some of the same problems. However, he saw it the night before I saw the matinee. We sat in the same area. Not unusual that they made no changes to the show overnight on opening weekend, so it is not unusual that we encountered the same issues or problems.
I think Ted’s review is dead-on. The supporting cast is brilliant in this prodution, and hopefully as the run goes on David and Jeffrey will develop more chemistry. I saw it last Sunday, and I enjoyed the show, but I also had a hard time seeing faces and the “couch scenes.”
I recommend the show highly.
wooo… snarky much?
I also enjoyed the show and respect the manner in which this sites reviewers write their reviews, both positive and negative. They always show respect for the talent.
While reading your review, I see the paragraph about director Chris Suchans work is almost exactly what James Howard of Broadway World stated, just in a more professional manner. Coincidence???
You comment on bad blocking and missing the couch scenes. The other 80% of the house got a full on view of the couch scenes. Nobody sees everything in the round. The only other option to make sure everyone got a chance to see the couch scenes would be to set up the location differently every time it appears or make it a moving couch. Not sensible options. What other option would have worked? Some seating sections at Toby’s are bound to miss something – perhaps you should have been seated on the other side of the house so you could enjoy the couch business but that would not be the directors fault. That would be bad blocking by house management or box office for giving you that seat. I actually enjoyed the blocking of the show and found it refreshing to see a different style of staging at Toby’s. I saw no more or less of peoples faces then I ever do at Toby’s and I have seen the show 3 times now from 3 different locations. It seems to me that you and Mr Howard may have gotten an unfortunate ear full from people involved with Toby’s and the production. I hope other peoples negative feelings about the production in no way influenced your opinion and review. Again – I respect your reviews and enjoy your site as it is supportive to the theatre community from amateur to professional. Cheers!