BROTHERS IN ARMS: Trapp, Warren, and Arnold in The Producers.
The new incarnation of Theatre by the Sea, down in Matunuck, is finishing up its first season with The Producers (through August 31), and the show’s success has to do with more than the Mel Brooks classic being a familiar crowd pleaser.
The timing is sweet, too — this is the 75th anniversary season of the 500-seat barn theater, which has faced mortality several times over that period. Non-profit status under a new owner has finally saved the place from the vagaries of commercial survival. More important in the long run, the quality of this and prior productions has ranged from good to — with this show — first-rate.
The musical was adapted by Mel Brooks and Thomas Meehan, with Brooks writing the music as well as the lyrics. The original choreography by Susan Stroman has been re-created here by Brad Musgrove, who was Stroman’s dance captain for the Broadway production.
Everyone with a funny bone in their body who has not seen a previous incarnation of The Producers is to be pitied. The 1968 film with Brooks and Gene Wilder, the 2001 Broadway musical version starring Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick, and the 2005 film with them reprising their roles, all were howling hoots.
But for audiences to watch a new production through the scrim of such vivid memories is a dangerous prospect for any theater. Even Nathan Lane was wearing a Mel Brooks mask, in effect, when he first entered stage center as Max Bialystock. Not such a problem in Matunuck, with principal actors making their characters their distinctive own.
Bialystock (Bob Arnold) is a Broadway producer on a losing streak, his musical version of Hamlet — Funny Boy — having just gone down in critics’ flames. His accountant, Leo Bloom (Doug Trapp), casually remarks that a dishonest producer could make a fortune with a flop if he simply raised more money from investors then he acknowledged to the IRS. Nervous, sometimes hysterical, blankie-snuggling Bloom is reluctantly recruited to the scheme, which should make them $1 million each. All they have to do is find a surefire flop.
A little musical called Springtime for Hitler fits the bill, and if its helmeted and lederhosen-wearing playwright, Franz Liebkind (Bruce Warren), can’t assure its failure through pure Nazi devotion, the producers have recruited others who can. Gay director Roger De Bris (Nate Suggs) specializes in frivolous Broadway schlock, aided by his hyper-gay assistant Carmen Ghia (Brian Bailey).
The genius of Mel Brooks was to see that trite characters get that way by being recognizable and popular; they just overstay their welcome. Well, Brooks pushes them so over the top — and director Jerome Vivona urges them further — that these outrageous characters are scrambling in mid-air like Wile E. Coyote over a chasm. They refresh these stereotypes by stretching them past the usual limits.
Arnold’s Bialystock radiates eye-twinkling, unabashed greed like horny lounge lizards radiate lust. Through his voice, Trapp gives the nervous Bloom a frail quality even when he’s acting self-confident. Warren makes us fond of the Cherman-accented Führer-loving Liebkind through sheer boyish enthusiasm. (A friend visiting from Cologne laughed as much as I did at the Third Reich antics, so apparently it was too excessive to offend.) The classic sexy dumb blonde role of Ulla, amped up by her being Swedish, is performed with a knowing slyness by Julia Dennis.
The production values in Matunuck have been consistently fine this season, from the simple revue Ain’t Misbehavin’ through the high-energy George M! to the elegant Evita. In 1967, former publicist Tommy Brent saved the barn theater from demolition, but his shows often were not fully polished. When Fourquest Entertainment took over in 1988, quality improved for 15 seasons, but not when productions relied heavily on dancing; dividing profits among three producers limited those more expensive shows. The doors closed in 2003. But last year the place was bought by Bill Hanney, owner of a Massachusetts cinema chain, and a late-summer production of A Funny Thing Happened On the Way to the Forum showed that all was safely in hand. Hanney set up the theater as a non-profit, which increased revenue sources beyond tickets and has allowed increased budgets for productions. This season has seen no lack of talented toe-tapping and proficient chorus lines.
If The Producers is the new standard for future seasons, Theater by the Sea surviving another 75 years is not a far-fetched ambition.