Zimmerman heads great cast in sunset's 'producers'
By MARILYN JOZWIK
Published July 16, 2018
At last Sunday’s performance of Sunset Playhouse’s “The Producers” I overheard a woman comment: “You have to remember: It’s Mel Brooks.”
In fact, the book is by Mel Brooks and Thomas Meehan, with music and lyrics by Brooks. Anyone familiar with Brooks knows his work is irreverent, sometimes slapstick, schtick or farce. But you know it’s going to be funny.
Indeed, this musical showcases the funny in a very slick, sleek, shiny production. It runs fast, on high octane, with first-rate, well-tuned performances, most notably that of Robert A. Zimmerman as Max Bialystock, and extravagantly executed production numbers. Tommy Lueck is the director.
The show somewhat reminds me of what “Cabaret” would be if it were turned into a comedy. It pokes fun -- outrageously -- at Hitler in the show within a show, “Springtime for Hitler.”
Keep it gay
“The Producers” takes place in 1959, when Max is bemoaning his fall from greatness as a leading producer of Broadway shows. In his shabby office, he meets a nervous, nerdy, neurotic accountant, Leo Bloom (Zach Zembrowski), who tells him he can make a ton of dough by producing a huge flop on Broadway. So, they out to find the worst show, director and performers around. They come up with the show “Springtime for Hitler,” written by an eccentric former Nazi, Franz Liebkind (Steven Sizer). Next, they hire a Swedish secretary/leading lady/blonde bombshell, whose impossibly long name gets shortened to Ulla (Molly Morrow).
They call on the gay director Roger DeBris (Eric Safdieh-Nelson), who along with his “common-law assistant” Carmen Ghia (Andrew Kelly) tells Max and Leo they want to do something less serious and more “gay” and the producers agree to change the show.
And so, the production of “Springtime for Hitler” begins after Max cons a number of wealthy old ladies into financing the venture. Liebkind is cast in the leading role, but is injured on opening night and replaced by director DeBris, whose campy take on Hitler turns the show into a satirical hit, foiling the producers’ plans.
Ever present blankie
Finally after a dust-up with police officers who find their cooked books, the ethically challenged duo return to civilian life from prison and produce another successful musical based on their prison experiences.
It’s all great fun, with Zimmerman’s Max as the centerpiece. I hadn’t seen Zimmerman in years, but remember him as Harold Hill in “Music Man” and Mr. Applegate in “Damn Yankees,” both marvelous performances. What a joy to see him again in what he calls his “dream role.” Not surprisingly, it is a dream performance, perfectly pitched in every way. Zimmerman epitomizes the crusty, scheming Max, who softens to the good-hearted Leo. He handles the lines with precision, never losing sight of each situation. He moves with purpose and handles several dance scenes and vocals easily.
Zembrowski’s Leo is appropriately meek and mousy, telling Max in “We Can Do It” that “You’ve mistaken me for someone with a spine.” He milks his panic attacks with his little “blankie” to great effect and is a fine foil to Zimmerman’s Max. His tunes match his soft-spoken character but his voice is a bit pitchy at times.
There are so many roles here that are just a hoot to watch. Safdieh-Nelson’s DeBris is all camp, especially when he takes on the Hitler role in “Heil Myself” in “Springtime.” That whole sequence has a Ziegfeld Follies flair, with chorus girls in scanty, plumed costumes humorously depicting German sausages, pretzels, beer and more floating down a staircase, plus glitzy lighting and high-energy dance. Justin Spanbauer does a really nice job with several roles, including the “Springtime” vocals.
Morrow also captures the fun in her Ulla character, with her exaggerated Swedish accent and “flaunt it” sensibilities, while Sizer’s Liebkind adds great vocals. His tall, sturdy frame is perfect for big movements, as in “Der Guten Tag Hop-Clop,” a parody on Bavarian slap dancing he does with Max and Leo that is an absolute hoot. I couldn’t wait to see Sizer’s character reappear on stage.
The ensemble delivers some crisp dancing, especially in the “Springtime” segment, though a couple of the early numbers were a bit uneven. As in several recent shows, Santana Vannarath stood out with his fabulous dance moves, including leaps and splits. The women as old ladies are hilarious in their walker bit and courtroom scene, maintaining their shaky voices and bent postures.
Vocally there is good sound from the ensemble, save for one male voice that on occasion unpleasantly stood out, though the high sopranos beautifully filled out the top sections. Music director Mark Mrozek maintained tunes at a good clip, keeping instrumentals nicely underneath the vocals.
Overall, this show had a great look thanks to costume designer Lisa Quinn. Men’s suits were perfectly tailored and the women looked fabulous as show girls, ticket takers, pink-clad old ladies and show-goers. Also, there are lots of fun glitzy and Village People looks in “Keep It Gay.” Scenic designer/builder Matthew Carr did an outstanding job with sets, especially the marvelous marquee looks for the opening and “Springtime” scenes.
If you go
Who: Sunset Playhouse
What: “The Producers”
When: Through Aug. 5
Where: 800 Elm Grove Road, Elm Grove
Tickets/Info: (262) 782-4430; www.sunsetplayhouse.com