Reviewed by Judy Richter
Mel Brooks seemed to know exactly how far he could go before crossing the thin line between good taste and bad in "The Producers," which he created as a movie in 1968 before converting it into a musical in 2001. The resulting show, for which he wrote the music and lyrics and co-wrote the book (with Thomas Meehan), went on to win a record 12 Tony Awards. Now Foothill Music Theatre stays on the good side of the line in its summer production.
There's also a fine line between a high-energy performance and one in which the performer seems to be working too hard. Unfortunately the two leads cross that line. Gary De Mattei, who plays Max Bialystock, the Broadway producer who decides to turn his penchant for producing flops into a money-making scheme, tends toward the manic throughout the show. On the other hand, Tim Reynolds, who plays Leo Bloom, the accountant who inadvertently gives Max the idea and joins him in the scheme, starts out at a too-high pitch but appropriately modulates his performance as the show continues. All of the other major performers are spot-on.
As the show opens, Max has just seen his latest musical open and close on the same night. When Leo shows up to check Max's books, he comments that Max could make money on a flop with the right sleight of an accountant's hands. The two then try to find the worst show ever written and to give it the worst possible director and cast. They hit upon "Springtime for Hitler," written by the nutty Franz Liebkind (Ken Boswell), who still worships the German leader. Next they hire director Roger DeBris (Ray Joseph), who's determined to "Keep It Gay." They also hire Ulla (Brittany Ogle), a sexy Swedish actress, to serve as their receptionist until the show opens. Max then sets about raising money by his proven method -- seducing rich old women who eagerly pay for his attention with fat checks. Despite the two producers' efforts to mount the biggest flop in history, "Springtime for Hitler" is a hit, sending Leo and Ulla off to Rio and leaving Max to go to jail for defrauding his investors.
Besides the outstanding performances by Boswell, Joseph and Ogle, the show features noteworthy contributions by Sean Patrick Murtagh as Carmen Ghia, Roger's assistant; and Sean O'Connor as the Nazi tenor. The women's ensemble is terrific, whether playing their own age as usherettes and other characters or dancing in precise formation as elderly women using walkers. The men's ensemble also does well, filling many minor roles and contributing some fine dancing to Dottie Lester-White's choreography -- kudos to Kevin Stanford, who dances while supposedly playing the violin.
Director Jay Manley presides over it all, aided by musical director Catherine Snider, lighting designer Kurt Landisman, costume designer Janis Bergmann and sound designer Andrew C. Heller. Beth Anne Wells designed the pigeon puppets for the rooftop scene with Franz. The set from Diablo Theatre Company was redesigned by FMT's Joe Ragey.
Opening night began less than auspiciously. The orchestra had played the overture in less than fine fashion (too much trumpet), but then seemed to be vamping while waiting for the curtain to rise. Many in the audience thought there was a technical problem, but then the house lights came on. Manley took to the stage to announce that the campus police had asked him to stop the show because someone had parked in a handicapped space and hadn't set the parking brake. Luckily the problem was immediately resolved, so Snider and her orchestra took it from the top again -- this time with better musical results, thus setting the standard for the rest of the enjoyable show.