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Review: 'The Producers' at Carpenter Performing Arts Center

February 4, 2009 |  2:30 pm

Leo_and_max It is hard to argue with success, though flop sweat might actually benefit a theatrical entity scheming to make a fortune from a guaranteed failure.  That needn't worry the stellar forces at Carpenter Performing Arts Center, where Musical Theatre West mounts Mel Brooks' record-breaking "The Producers" in brazenly enjoyable manner.

When Brooks' adaptation of his 1968 film landed on Broadway in 2001, it was a gusher, sweeping the Tony Awards, establishing a $100 top ticket and becoming a worldwide sensation. Despite a shakily received 2003 local premiere, when properly cast and staged, "The Producers" is as surefire a commercial crowd-pleaser as any produced since the era it affectionately skewers.

Namely, the late '50s, when unscrupulous Max Bialystock (Michael Kostroff, marvelously atop his game) has generated yet another disaster, a musical of "Hamlet" titled "Funny Boy." His establishing number, "The King of Broadway," sets the tone:  frenetic, risqué and shamelessly eager to go anywhere for guffaws.

Which is exactly where Brooks and Thomas Meehan's book goes, with the entrance of accountant Leo Bloom (Larry Raben, ideal), who secretly yearns to be a Belasco or Merrick. After milquetoast Leo observes that you could make more money from overselling a bomb than parlaying a hit, Max ignites. Thus begins a show-stopping stream of pastiche songs (by Brooks), wickedly inventive dances and enough politically incorrect visuals and self-referential humor to resurrect both vaudeville and burlesque.

Springtime_for_hitler Bialystock and Bloom find their fool's goldmine in "Springtime for Hitler," a love letter to Adolf penned by an ex-SS officer (Nick Santa Maria, aptly demented), who tends Nazi-saluting, harmonically cooing pigeons. The team hires the worst director in town (David Engel, having a plum-toned field day) and his "common-law assistant" (a hilarious Michael Paternostro). Add a statuesque Swedish plot complication (the terrific Sarah Cornell) and more libidinous little old ladies than you can tap a walker at, and there's the rocketing Act 1. Act 2 inverts the stakes on opening night of "Springtime for Hitler," which surpasses even the campiest expectations.

Kostroff's precision hamming is inspired, Raben's charm combines the film's Gene Wilder with Broadway's Matthew Broderick, and they front a solid triple-threat troupe. Steven Glaudini directs as adroitly as Matthew J. Vargo replicates Susan Stroman's choreography and Daniel Thomas oversees the buoyant orchestra.

True, Robin Wagner's original scenic designs and William Ivey Long's costume parade have faintly rented contours. It's an overstuffed show, more fortuitously timed construct than classic musical, and the florid sum of its wacky parts loses traction after "Springtime." That will hardly bother theatergoers clamoring to attend this bona fide smash.

--David C. Nichols

"The Producers," Carpenter Performing Arts Center, 6200 Atherton St., Long Beach. 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays. Ends Feb. 15. $30-$58. (562) 856-1999, Ext. 4. Running time: 2 hours, 45 minutes.

Photos:  Larry Raben, top left, Michael Kostroff, top right, and David Engel, bottom, in "The Producers." Credit: Ambrose Martin.

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