February 4, 2004  
Volume 97, Issue 69  

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ARTS & ENTERTAINMENT

Exceptionally produced play


The Producers
Canon Theatre
Starring: Séan Cullen, Michael Therriault
Directed by: Susan Stroman

By Mark Polishuk
Gazette Staff

TORONTO — It’s impossible to describe The Producers as any sort of normal stage show, since it’s less a musical than a tidal wave of comic energy that engulfs the audience and leaves them, to paraphrase Leo Bloom (Therriault), in pain, and hysterical and wet.

Based on the 1968 Mel Brooks film of the same name, which gave Gene Wilder his first starring role and won Brooks an Oscar for the script, The Producers tells the story of, you guessed it, a Broadway producer named Max Bialystock (Séan Cullen), whose once-promising career has been hurt by a series of flops.

Max is forced to make ends meet by acting as a gigolo to elderly women, before he has a chance meeting with pathologically nervous accountant Bloom. Bloom discovers a tax loophole wherein a clever producer can actually make a fortune in producing a failure of a play, and soon the two join forces to put on the biggest disaster in Broadway history.

Their project? A musical called Springtime For Hitler, written by neo-Nazi Franz Liebkind (Paul O’Sullivan), chronicling the love story between Adolf and Eva Braun.

As you can tell, this play has a very warped sense of humour. It’s possible you might even be offended by some of the material, though Brooks’s unique combination of old-time Borscht Belt humour, bad puns and some of the most tastelessly hilarious jokes you’ll ever hear creates an atmosphere of fun, rather than cheap shots.

The big Springtime For Hitler musical number has to be seen to be believed, with jackbooted dancers twirling in a swastika-shaped chorus line.

Director/choreographer Susan Strohman does an amazing job of coordinating the manic action on stage, which quite frankly helps mask the fact the songs themselves are pretty unremarkable. You are far more likely to leave the theatre reciting bits of dialogue rather than humming any of the music.

The Toronto production has the tough task of living up to the high standards of both the original film and the fabled Broadway cast of Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick, for which the roles of Bialystock and Bloom seem so perfect; you can almost imagine their performances without actually seeing them.

Cullen, a Tonight Show regular and former lead singer of Corky & the Juice Pigs, brings his own sort of sly wit to the role of Max, culminating in a hilarious song where he recaps the entire plot of the play, including a break for intermission where he makes up a conversation between audience members, discussing the changes from the Broadway version (“Nathan Lane dresses up like an owl and flies around the audience attacking people... I can see why they cut that part out”).

Therriault is not quite as unique, as he seems to borrow heavily from Wilder’s mannerisms, but he is the better singer and dancer of the two. He seems to be a little too young and innocent for the role, as an actor like Broderick (who has the built-in Ferris Bueller sneakiness to him) has a little bit of age behind the babyface.

The supporting characters just about steal the show. O’Sullivan, a familiar face from commercials and CBC shows, is hilarious as the confused Nazi, and one of the funniest running gags of the play concerns the entrances and exits of director Roger De Bris (Juan Chioran) and his assistant Carmen (Brandon McGibbon), both of whom would be right at home at Club 181 (nudge-nudge wink-wink).
Sarah Cornell plays Ulla, the producers’ voluptuous Swedish secretary, whose broken English gains plenty of laughs as the audience needs a few seconds to decipher just what she said.

When a show is as excessively hyped as this one, what with its record-breaking ticket sales on Broadway and its 12 Tony Awards, one could expect to be a bit let down by the actual production; however, The Producers is the rare pop culture phenomenon that not only lives up to the hype, but manages to exceed it.

 

 

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