A musical worthy of Chicago as comedy capitol
|Mercury Theater Chicago presents|
Review by John Olson
As we Chicago theatre professionals and professional theatre fans like to say, we live in the best theatre city in the country, and many outside the city would agree with that. Those of us in that category may or may not know, but probably wouldn’t be surprised to hear, that we live in the country’s best comedy city as well. Second City is the recognized national leader of sketch comedy theaters, but the improv community is huge – led by the likes of iO, The Annoyance, ComedySportz and many smaller companies. And maybe LA and NYC are better known for standup, but there’s a vibrant scene here as well. So why don’t we see more comedies on Chicago stages? Is it because, forgive the cliché, “dying is easy, comedy is hard”? It is hard, but why not tap into the comedy scene to get performers who have those skills?
Enter Bill Larkin and Matt Crowle. Larkin is a Chicago-based performer whose roots are mostly in standup, but who’s taken on straight dramatic (A Class Act) and comedy (A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum) roles in musical theatre as of late. Crowle, is simply a fine, fine comic actor who was also in Porchlight’s Forum alongside Larkin and has starred in [title of show] at Northlight, Bye Bye Birdie at Drury Lane and Mary Poppins at Paramount. I’m guessing the Mercury Theater must have signed these two before announcing they would take on The Producers – one of just a few “musical comedies” of the past 60 years that are truly comedies in that their first goal is to make the audience laugh. With Larkin and Crowle (and having starred in two big musical comedies together now they are starting to sound like a team), Mercury has comic performers capable of following in the footsteps of Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick (not to mention Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder) as The Producers’ Max Bialystock and Leo Bloom. Plus, they’re better singers than Lane and Broderick. By a lot.
The other challenge in taking on this musical is that many audiences will have seen the original, which had its pre-Broadway tryout here at the Cadillac Palace and was preserved in a film version (however poorly received it was) so comparisons are hard to avoid. Both of Mercury’s leads make the parts their own, with Crowle landing somewhere between Broderick’s boyishness and Wilder’s hysteria. Larkin’s Max is brash and loud – maybe a litter closer to Mostel than Lane. He has the comic timing to land his material, though truth be told, he repeats himself a little too often in his choices of facial expressions and poses.
Equally successful are the performers in key supporting roles. Allison Sill is the not-as-dim-as –she would have you believe Ulla and Harter Clingman is a most-Germanic looking and psychotic former Nazi Franz Liebkind, the author of the musical-within-the-musical Springtime for Hitler. Jason Richards does fine by the campy director Roger DeBris, though he seems to be holding back a little on the camp. Mel Brooks material – here and anywhere, really – needs complete and fearless commitment to its brand of outrageous, let’s-offend-everybody humor. One can sense the performers and director Walter Stearns holding back just a little when tackling some of Brooks’s dicier bits. Whether it’s the sexual content Brooks loves or the way he skewers racial and ethnic stereotypes, you have to go with it. Sawyer Smith as Carmen Ghia, on the other hand, may err in replicating too closely Roger Bart’s performance as De Bris’s “common law assistant.” The comic skills of the ensemble are more of a mixed bag. They each have their moments in the sun and they don’t all shine comically but they all do sing and dance quite terrifically, in Brigitte Ditmars’ sexy and funny dances.
Another challenge for Producers is fitting the very big Broadway musical in a smallish stage like the Mercury’s, but Stearns, Ditmars and set designer Jeffrey D. Kmiec make it work. Kmiec frames the proscenium with headlines of billboards to keep us rooted in Times Square throughout, though by using the same material for faux product billboards as well as the parody show titles, the device doesn’t read as well as it should. Kmiec gives us a nice, realistic office for Bialystock and Bloom, though, and does simpler, more suggestive things for the other settings. The production numbers that benefitted from Broadway-sized casting work just fine, thanks to the men doubling as women where needed and Ditmars makes great use of the space she has. Some clever projections by Ross Hoppe for the “Springtime for Hitler” number allow it land as a Busby Berkeley pastiche even without the resources of a bigger stage and cast. The costumes by Frances Maggio look as expensive as they need to be.
The Producers may well be the out-and-out funniest musical ever – and in my memory it is the first and last to even try to be that since 1962’s Forum. If this production doesn’t entirely match the original in mirth, it beats it hands down in musical performance, thanks to the strong vocals and solid accompaniment from Eugene Dizon’s band. Let’s hope it’s a model for other Chicago comedy types to follow Larkin into the world of scripted theater. We can all use the laughs!
The Producers continues through June 26th at Mercury Theater, 3745 N. Southport (map), with performances Wednesdays 8pm, Thursdays 3pm & 8pm, Fridays 8pm, Saturdays 3pm & 8pm, Sunndays 3pm. Tickets are $35-$65, and are available by phone (773-325-1700) or online at Vendini.com (check for half-price tickets at Goldstar.com). More at MercuryTheaterChicago.com. (Running time: 2 hours 25 minutes, includes a 10-minute intermission)
Photos by Brett A. Beiner
Bill Larkin (Max Bialystock), Matt Crowle (Leo Bloom), Allison Sill (Ulla), Harter Clingman (Franz Liebkind), Jason Richards (Roger DeBris), Sawyer Smith (Carmen Ghia), Joe Capstick, Brian Elliott, Dan Gold, Katie Hunter, Leah Morrow, Melissa Reinertson, Steven Spanopoulos, Ryan Stajmiger, Stephanie Wohar, Travis Austin Wright (ensemble)
Eugene Dizon (conductor, keyboard 1), Linda Madonia (keyboard 2), Hannah Bureau (violin), Catie Hickey (trombone), John Mohan (trumpet), Anthony Rodriguez (reeds), Lindsay Williams (percussion)
behind the scenes
L. Walter Stearns (director), Eugene Dizon (musical director), Brigitte Ditmars (choreographer), Jeffrey D. Kmiec (scenic design), Frances Maggio (costume design), Nick Belley (lighting design), Mike Ross (sound design), Kristi J. Martens (production stage manager), Daniel J. Hanson (assistant stage manager), Steven Spanopoulos (asst. choreographer), Kristen Berger-Nolte (wig, hair design), Glenese Hand (makeup design), Linda Madonia (keyboard programming), Jerica Hucke (costume design assistant), Carl Wahlstrom (sound board engineer), Rachel Boylan (wardrobe, wig supervisor), Jason Shivers (master electrician), Ross Hoppe (video design and animation), Nadine Heidiger (graphic designer), Fresh Roasted Films (video clip production), Brett A. Beiner (photos)