As familiar as I am with the subtle comedy stylings of Mel Brooks, the man who brought us “Blazing Saddles” and “Spaceballs,” I’m still amazed at the sheer comic chutzpah of “The Producers.”
This show, in the hands of the Coeur d’Alene Summer Theatre, is a nonstop circus of slapstick gags, double entendres, bosom jokes and vaudeville shtick. This show even drags out the old “walk this way” gag, this time involving the swishiest stride on Broadway.
Subtle? Absolutely not. Tasteful? The polar opposite. Consistently and outrageously funny? Oh, yeah.
I can only describe it by saying that the show’s big number is “Springtime for Hitler,” a gay romp through the Third Reich, featuring singin’ and dancin’ storm troopers. And this is not, by some standards, the rudest part of the show. There’s also, for instance, the number called “Keep It Gay,” an absolute cavalcade of stereotypes.
Brooks gets away with all of this because offensiveness is the entire point of the show. It’s about shady Broadway producers Max Bialystock and Leo Bloom, who concoct a scheme to make money by staging the biggest flop in Broadway history. That’s where “Springtime for Hitler” comes in.
The Coeur d’Alene Summer Theatre’s production is impressive for several reasons, the first being its sheer size. The settings shift every five minutes, going from Broadway street scenes to a rooftop pigeon coop (complete with Nazi pigeons) to Sing Sing prison. Also, the cast is enormous, which is what happens when a musical includes both a kick line of brownshirts and a chorus line of little old ladies with walkers.
Even more impressive is the quality of the cast assembled by director-choreographer Tralen Doler. Many of them came directly from a summer stock theater in upstate New York, where Doler just directed another production. No wonder the cast looks so polished.
The principals have big shoes to fill, since the roles of Bialystock and Bloom are associated with legends Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder and later, on Broadway, with Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick.
Eric James Hadley hits a home run as Bialystock, investing him with just the right amount of endearing sleaziness (yes, there is such a thing). Bialystock is a balding cannonball of energy as he sweatily seduces every love-starved grandma in Manhattan.
Leo Bloom, the timid accountant, is a famously infantile character who grabs for his blue blankie whenever he’s upset. Matt Wade takes that idea and runs with it. His performance is more Pee-wee Herman than Matthew Broderick, a bit like a 4-year-old in full meltdown. He does a lot of whimpering and wild Jerry Lewis-style crazy-limbed shtick. I found myself wishing for a performance a little less broad – although I realize that’s an absurd thing to wish for in “The Producers.”
Broad but even more hilarious was Jerry Christakos as Roger De Bris, a Broadway director who makes the Village People look like straight arrows. Christakos delivered the most deliciously appalling scene in the entire show, when he pranced out as a mincing Adolf Hitler. He sat on the edge of the stage, giggled, and implored people in the front row to meet him in his dressing room after the show. By the way, when I say “most deliciously appalling,” I also mean “funniest.”
His “common law assistant,” Carmen Ghia, was played with hilarious aplomb by Stephen Dahlke. The other outstanding supporting performance came from Patrick Treadway as the deranged Nazi playwright Franz Liebkind, who marched around in lederhosen while regaling us with such priceless tunes as “Der Guten Tag Hop Clop” and “Haben Sie Gehort Das Deutscheband?”
With all of the satirical energy flowing through this show, I did notice that the audience response was a touch on the cool side – and that, in the first act, I found the show hard to warm up to as well. Brooks does go a little too often for the easy gag and the old joke – a problem exacerbated by the fact that many of us have been familiar with this material for 40 years.
Also, the cast on opening night may have been trying just a little bit too strenuously to make us laugh. With material this broad, a lighter approach might be better. The easier they can make it look, the funnier it will be.