Heil Muny!: With The Producers, the Muny scores a first-round knockout

The Producers

The Producers
Through June 22 at the Muny in Forest Park.
In addition to the free seats, tickets cost $9 to $64.
Call 314-361-1900 or visit www.muny.org.

It's as if the past nine months never happened. The Muny has opened its 90th season exactly as it ended the 89th. Last year's closer, Les Miserables, was a triumph of stagecraft. This week's production of The Producers is equally professional — and is significant for much more than mere craft. This is the show that drags the Muny kicking and screaming — and belly laughing — into the 21st century. Profanity at the Muny?! Bet your booty on it. The evening, which revels in down-and-dirty Mel Brooks crudity, is a relentless assault on the Muny's reputation for family entertainment. And Munygoers loved every crass minute.

Unless you've been living under a rock for the whole millennium, you already know what The Producers is about. So let's not waste time rehashing the trials and tribulations endured by the bellicose Max Bialystock and the timid Leo Bloom as they attempt to exploit American capitalism. Let's get straight to the production.

Owing to the Muny's vastness, this simplified staging cannot replicate the attention to detail that transported the Broadway Producers into the theatrical stratosphere. When the chorus girls appear in Leo's fantasy "I Wanna Be a Producer," they do not emerge from office file drawers; instead they come through innocuous blue doors. (Once again the Muny is obsessed with painting everything blue.) There are no trampolines in Little Old Lady Land or overhead mirrors to transform "Springtime for Hitler" into an escalating frenzy able to feed on its own energy. Stripped of ornamentation, the production wisely focuses on the rock-solid script by Brooks and Thomas Meehan and the deftly larkish performances.

And not just those of the principals. The dancing ensemble has sveltely mastered director-choreographer Bill Burns' modified versions of the original Susan Stroman gyrations. The enunciation of the singing ensemble is impeccable. You don't miss a line. Terrific work by all. And the sound system is fabulous.

Almost all the principals are seasoned veterans of The Producers, and it shows. Lee Roy Reams is still able to outrageously morph cross-dressing director Roger De Bris with Adolf Hitler through the prism of Judy Garland. Kudos to Anthony Cummings, the one newcomer. His hilarious neo-Nazi playwright is so assured, you'd think Cummings had been playing the role for years.

In an evening that thrives on excess, Don Stephenson's Leo Bloom exploits subtlety. It's hard to know if Stephenson is even aware of what he does. But in moments when Leo is especially intimidated, his already pale face turns whiter than Marcel Marceau's, and his already nervous hair begins a frantic, if failed, attempt to tear loose from the scalp and run for cover. Stephenson's transformative coward is the perfect foil for the volcanic Max Bialystock.

You've got to be perfect if you're going to keep up with Lewis J. Stadlen, whose dazzling turn as Max is like a kaleidoscopic tour through American humor. Here's a bit of Jimmy Durante; now, some Groucho Marx. Let's throw in some Johnny Carson as Carnac the Magnificent. Then blend it all through Stadlen's misanthropic genius, and what might in lesser hands seem imitative instead becomes totally original and seemingly effortless. To watch Stadlen create comedy is such a joyful and involving experience, it's the next best thing to getting hit in the face with a pie.

Finally, a note of abject apology to Angie Schworer, who is a phantasmagorical delight as the voluptuous Ulla — sexpot, siren and secretary extraordinaire. Like Stadlen, Stephenson and Reams, Schworer is repeating the role she performed in the knockout touring company that played the Fox six years ago — and I neglected to mention her in my 2002 review. Inexcusable. In making amends, all I can say is that seeing her coy and frolicsome performance again all these years later was worth the wait. She is sensational. 

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