The Producers at Carte Blance Studios

By - Nov 16th, 2009 12:53 pm
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producers2A dozen Tony Awards and thousands of worldwide performances later, Mel Brooks and Thomas Meehan’s musical-comedy adaptation of Brooks’ 1968 film The Producers is alive and well in Milwaukee. It’s currently running on two local stages simultaneously (the other being the Shorewood Players production).

Jimmy Dragolovich directs his Carte Blanche Studios’ latest production, which uses the familiar ‘play-within-a-play’ structure: a rocky Broadway impresario named Max Bialystock (Michael Traynor) and his cunning new accountant Leo Bloom (Jordan Gwiazdowski) plot to make millions by producing a sure-fire flop. Among a mountain of bad scripts, they find the perfect play for failure called “Springtime for Hitler”. It’s written by an unapologetic, die-hard Nazi with a rooftop pigeon coop. Despite every effort to tank the show, it’s a hit.

Mel Brooks is well known for unsophisticated, aggressive and abusive vaudevillian humor in the highest shtick tradition. This show, inevitably, seeks to lower the lowbrow bar ever lower. That brand of humor succeeds, but at the expense of an easy mark. In this case, it’s the gay characters.

Sure, there’s plenty of equal-opportunity offense to go around. There are horny little old ladies, a sexy Swedish blonde, sellout con artist Jews wearing swastika armbands, and even a silly old Nazi in Lederhosen. All get their fair share of mockery. But somehow, it’s the coterie of over the top squealing and screaming queens in this particular staging who get the dubious honor of being laughed at rather than with. One excruciating scene at gay play director Roger DeBris’ (Brian Bzdawka) apartment made me wince and cringe with each hypercamp caricature that descended the staircase to join the hilarity.

Call me old-fashioned, but even in the sentimental context of 1968’s un-PC insensitivity, isn’t it awkward to perpetuate ignorance and intolerance by demeaning gays? Given the political climate, in a particular Midwest state with an anti-gay constitutional amendment, it may be hard for some to laugh. Had Brooks taken aim at African-Americans with equal vigor (instead of with them as in Blazing Saddles), The Producers would never have survived the first 2001 tryout at the Cadillac Palace in Chicago.

As far as Carte Blanche’s production goes, it’s wonderfully staged and choreographed. The music is suitably squeaky and inadvertently Brechtian. For all intents and purposes, it’s a fun show. Given the infamous limitation of the space, Dragolovich, along with choreographer Samantha Paige and set designer Tom Sorce truly succeed in an impressive feat of wrangling the logistics of staging rambunctious performances. Supported by extravagant production numbers including synchronized seniors with walkers and accountants accounting, the three hour show flashes by.

One case standout is Amber Smith as Ulla, the beautiful Swedish blonde with breast appeal. She exudes an endearing exuberance and sincerity that turns Ulla’s dopiness into pure charm. Traynor plays Bialystock as the perfect conniving producer. Gwiazdowski, as if in a Gene Wilder/Jerry Lewis homage, plays the neurotic Bloom with all the gags and chutzpah required of the role. All cast members deliver the musical numbers with effective emotion and that particular style that makes even a missed tone or two all part of the Broadway experience.

A straight audience will innocently indulge the crass humor and the stereotyping. It’s what they expect, and ultimately, it appears entertaining. The gay folks will have to grin and bear it. So, if your Putsch party plans include a night out at the theater, The Producers might be just the ticket – unless you’re still sweeping up broken glass.

Check out the Carte Blanche Studios website to reserve tickets, or call 262-716-4689. The Producers is running on an altered schedule, from Nov. 12 to Nov. 22.

Categories: Theater, VITAL

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