“The Producers” rolled into Fresno Tuesday for a fast and furious two-night run, offering a slick and mostly accomplished version of the monster 2001 Broadway hit.
Fresno was treated long ago, in 2004, to a full-scale, Actors Equity version of the Mel Brooks musical that played for a week-long run. That show was the same production that toured to the nation’s biggest theater cities, including San Francisco and Los Angeles. I wrote it was the closest Fresno had ever gotten to a true Broadway-quality experience onstage.
The current production – a bus-and-truck non-Equity tour (featuring actors not in the professional stage union) – is only in town for a two-night run, and it would be difficult, considering its resources, to match that same top-notch quality.
Still, an enthusiastic cast and a fealty to Susan Stroman’s original direction and choreography make this tour a pleasant and funny outing, though I have to say that the Saroyan Theatre audience didn’t seem to be as caught up in the show’s unbridled hilarity as I would have expected. I recall my first time at “The Producers” – perhaps through the haze of nostalgia – as being in certain key moments an uninterrupted laugh-fest.
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I consider the comic arc that kicks off in the first act, starting with Max Bialystock (David Johnson) and Leo Bloom (Richard Lafleur)’s visit to the rooftop pigeon abode of “Springtime for Hitler” playwright Franz Liebkind (an enthusiastic Thomas Slater) to secure the rights to the worst play in the world, as among the funniest half hour or so ever written for the musical-theater stage. Progressing from the swastika-wearing pigeons to a scene in which we meet flamboyant theater director Roger De Bris (John B. Boss) and his merry production team, then through to the introduction of Swedish bombshell Ulla (Jessica Ernest) and the first-act finale in Little Old Lady Land, the show just keeps building to a point just short of comic eruption, leaving us at intermission to anticipate the big “Springtime for Hitler” production number.
I didn’t sense that overwhelming giddiness among the audience in the theater Tuesday night, making me wonder: Is the decade-newer “Book of Mormon,” with its never-shy thunderbolts of sacrilege and crassness, what people expect today in a laugh-fest? Could “The Producers,” which relies on an earlier generation of slapstick humor, already feel quaint?
As a veteran “Producers” watcher, there are a couple of things I look for in any production. One is the ability of the actor playing Max to sustain the role’s blustery con-man exterior without burning out his welcome while still making you feel for the big heart within. Johnson starts a little too over the top – he’s like Drunk Uncle who shows up to dinner half-a-drink too sloshed for maximum comic impact – to make a truly memorably Max, but he does a competent job.
Another thing I look for is a Ulla who can do it all: exude sex appeal, flirt oh so innocently, scheme like a pro and connect in a nudge-and-wink way with the audience, all while being able to belt it out when she’s supposed to. Ernest certainly has a soaring voice, but she could offer a touch more fiendishness to her performance.
My favorite among the leads is Richard Lafleur, who gives us a distinctively nebbish Leo. A strong singer, he also has great comic timing. I like that Lafleur has a take on the role that feels distinctive (but still true), making me really root for him.
My least favorite is Boss as Roger. He’s fine in the first act, but in his big second-act number, when he plays his show-stopping role, he isn’t so much swishy as befuddled, which just isn’t as funny.
The tour has cut out a few songs in the second act, including “Betrayed” (a vanity number for the original Max, Nathan Lane), which isn’t missed, and “Where Did We Go Right,” sung by Max and Leo, which I did miss a little. I can understand the edits for time, though the Max-Leo relationship suffers with the omission of the song.
The last big ingredient for me: a “Springtime for Hitler” offering comic shock and awe. During the rest of the show, the sets, costumes and visuals are quite fine for a two-night tour. But the finale of “Springtime” just didn’t pop for me. I miss the big mirror effect in which people sitting in the orchestra actually get to see the rotating swastika. (This is one time when the balcony got the better view.) I know it’s a tour, but couldn’t we get a little more dazzle?
Still, these are relatively minor quibbles. Pound for pound, “The Producers” still delivers big laughs, and this production knows that when it comes to that Mel Brooks sparkle, it’s got it. And it flaunts it.
- 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 10
- Saroyan Theatre, 700 M St.
- www.broadwayinfresno.com, 800-745-3000