By Judith Cookis Rubens
In case you were living under a rock and missed the hype surrounding Mel Brooks’ hit musical “The Producers,” let’s refresh.
Washed-up Broadway producer Max Bialystock is coming off a string of misses. When his nerdy accountant, Leo Bloom, off-handedly muses that it’s easier to make money off a flop than a hit, a plan is born. The odd couple conspires to produce the worst play – with the most terrible actors and crew – and pocket most of their raised $2 million when the show tanks.
Of course, they never imagine their pick – a gay musical entitled “Springtime for Hitler” – will be a surprise hit.
Tibbits’ real-life producers, no doubt, were hoping for a smash song-and-dance hit to celebrate the theater’s 50th anniversary and the recent renovation of the historic Tibbits Opera House. Thanks to strong casting and staging by director/choreographer Kevin Halpin and a high-energy, youthful cast, they’ve produced a bona fide hit.
It’s quite a feat, really, to pull off Brooks’ sometimes groan-worthy zingers, politically incorrect shtick and show biz jokes, but Halpin and crew are more than up to the task.
Recreating some of the funniest sight gags from the Broadway production – old ladies tapping with their walkers; unhappy accountants slogging away; synchronized Nazis dancing – this vibrant cast pays homage to Susan Stroman’s original choreography, but puts its own stamp on it.
Turning their typical proscenium stage into a modified thrust stage, players dance, leap and careen up near the audience and around orchestra musicians, hidden safely below in a center pit. It’s creative and clever, and makes Act Two’s “musical within a musical” even more delightful.
A big part of the fun is Brooks’ catchy show tunes and bawdy lyrics.
Sadly, on opening night, there were a few sound (and lighting) glitches, so some early lines and lyrics were overpowered by the fantastic seven-member orchestra, led by musical director/pianist Cheryl VanDuzen.
As smarmy Max, Brian Sage delights in the depravity and humor of his character. His agile moves and sharp comic timing ground his performance. Sage also unveils a magnificent singing voice in “Betrayed,” a ridiculously athletic Act Two number that finds him rewinding the entire show in one breathless solo.
Sage’s partner-in-crime is SUNY Cortland grad Tim Fuchs, who plays repressed Leo Bloom. At first a tad cartoonish, Fuchs grows into the part, and unleashes a terrific rhythm and powerful dance moves, even giving a nod to Fred Astaire in the fantasy dance, “I Wanna Be a Producer.” His character’s evolution is a treat to watch, as is his nervous pairing with Swedish secretary/actress, Ulla (Aisling Halpin). Halpin’s Ulla is more demure sex kitten than broad bombshell, still she lights up every scene with infectious antics, sky-high kicks and sweet singing. Ulla and Leo also share a charming samba in Rio.
One of the cast’s biggest charmers is Chad Tallon as nutty neo-Nazi, Franz. He commits 100 percent to the craziness, and reels in some of the night’s biggest laughs while dancing “Der Guten Tag Hop-Clop.” His second act “Have You Ever Heard The German Band” might almost be funnier.
The show’s expert teamwork award goes to Richard Baker and Joey Gugliemelli, playing the effeminate duo of director Roger De Bris and his jealous “common law assistant,” Carmen, respectively. The two, along with their Village People-like entourage, have such fun with the flamboyant number, “Keep It Gay.”
The ensemble cast never stops moving, even during the show’s second act, which can drag in parts.
Clare Hungate-Hawk gets the costumes right, down to the sausage and beer stein headpieces and sequined swastikas. Meanwhile, Amanda Williams’ clever set design easily shifts from Max’s office, to theater stage, to NYC rooftop and jail cell with ease.
For all the show’s camp and vulgarity, there’s a sincerity to the friendship between Max and Leo and an overall love letter to the theater.
This Tibbits staging honors all that and makes it clear these up-and-coming performers have just the right affection and energy for the game of show biz.
Tibbits Summer Theatre, 14 S. Hanchett St., Coldwater. Wednesday-Saturday through Aug. 3. 2 hours, 45 minutes. $25. 517-278-6029. http://www.Tibbits.org