For more than 60 years, Rainbow Stage has built a dedicated following through offering mostly family-friendly fare.
It has not made its name with the sort of musicals where the big show-stopper is a song called “Springtime for Hitler.” Which is why artistic director Ray Hogg’s production of The Producers is something of a gamble for the local institution - and one that pays off with hysterically funny results.
'Merely mentioning Hitler onstage - much less having him sing and dance, backed by chorus girls in Panzer tank costumes and Imperial Eagle wings - remains touchy, to say the least.' - Joff Schmidt
The 2001 musical, based on Mel Brooks’ 1968 movie, still manages to shock with its premise. After a string of flops, Broadway producer Max Bialystock (Jeremy Webb) hatches a plan with his accountant, Leo Bloom (Simon Miron). They’ll raise millions to stage yet another Broadway bomb - and take off with the money when it closes.
So they find the worst play ever written - Springtime for Hitler, a loving musical ode to the Fuhrer, penned by a crazed Nazi devotee (Cory Wojcik) - and cast it with a crew of Broadway misfits. Of course, things backfire on our producers in spectacular fashion after opening night.
Merely mentioning Hitler onstage - much less having him sing and dance, backed by chorus girls in Panzer tank costumes and Imperial Eagle wings - remains touchy, to say the least. But Brooks’ musical (he wrote the music and lyrics himself, and the book with Thomas Meehan) plays it for such goofy laughs that it’s impossible not to be drawn in by the show’s irrepressible, subversive energy and still-witty one-liners (this is very much the Mel Brooks of classics like Blazing Saddles - not of more recent stinkers like Dracula: Dead and Loving It).
Brooks has said his intent was to fight back against the darkness of Hitler by making the character a buffoon - and that comes across loud and clear in Hogg’s production.
Everything is played here for big, campy laughs. From the Village People-like chorus line in Springtime director Roger DeBris’ (Edward Ledson) big number, “Keep It Gay,” to the Nazi salutes (and middle finger salutes) in “Der Guten Tag Hop Clop” to the all-out sexism of “When You Got It, Flaunt It” - sung by Bialystock and Bloom’s sexpot secretary/starlet Ulla (Elodie Gillett) - there really is something here to offend everyone. But it’s all done with an endearing, silly charm. (Less endearing, though, is the show’s somewhat bloated three hour running time, including intermission - so be prepared for a long night.)
Hogg does double-duty as choreographer, and his dance numbers are big, flashy and smartly performed by an impressive cast of 18. Webb owns the show as Max Bialystock - there’s more than a passing nod to Zero Mostel in his performance, but he’s credibly weasely and still likeable throughout, with spot-on comic timing. Likewise for Miron as the nebbish Leo Bloom. Elodie Gillett has less to work with as Ulla - this is not a piece that gives women much to do - but milks all the laughs she can out of the Swedish bombshell’s curious English pronunciations and saucy sexuality.
In the supporting cast, Ledson is fabulous as the flamboyant director, but audience favourite Carson Nattrass steals scenes as DeBris’ even more flamboyant “common law assistant,” Carmen Ghia. Wojcik bravely embraces the role of the Nazi-loving playwright, and manages to make him simultaneously detestable and knee-slappingly funny. And there’s lots of great talent in the ensemble, too, from performers like Debbie Maslowsky, Dorothy Carroll, Paula Potosky and Brett Taylor.
They’re all backed by a flawless and spirited 13-member orchestra, under music director Joseph Tritt, and a handsome set design by David Boechler.
The Producers is a departure for Rainbow Stage, but a show as sharp, funny and lovable as this makes it a welcome one.
The Producers runs at Rainbow Stage until July 19.