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A&E: Schmart changes highlight "The Producers"

August 18, 2008

When you've seen many productions at a theater (and I've seen many at Beef & Boards) and you've also seen multiple versions of a particular show (I've witnessed two previous takes on "The Producers" in addition to both film versions) then, when the familiar theater and the familiar show come together, you can't help but have some expectations.

That's not to say there's prejudgment-just some assumptions.

For instance, going into Beef & Boards' "The Producers," I figured it would take a little while for the audience to warm up to the show. That's not just because audiences here are used to tamer on-stage fare. It's also because the opening stretch of "The Producers" is its clunkiest-particularly the very long scene that sets up the core premise.

For those unfamiliar, the story concerns a seasoned Broadway pro on hard times who, aided by a nebbish accountant, realizes that he can make more money with a flop than a hit. This plan requires the selected show to be awful, of course. And so the two set out to find the worst place, the worst director, and the worst cast they can. Out of such a premise, bad taste and (ideally) high hilarity.

The opening scenes did, as I suspected, clunk along. I was right, too, in assuming there would be a tone shift from the original Broadway production, which was dominated by Nathan Lane's delightfully over-the-top and seriously cynical scenery chewing.

As brought to life by B&B boss Douglas Stark, producer Max Bialystock is lovable right from the beginning. Without the streak of self-possessed meanness that Lane brought to the part, the edge is softened to a point where many of the harsher jokes don't land. Don't get me wrong: Stark is fine. I just wasn't convinced he was ever all that unscrupulous. And without that starting point, his transformation through his friendship with accountant Leo Bloom doesn't carry as much weight as it could.

I'd also assumed that Eddie Curry would be a near-ideal Bloom. But I didn't think his role would become so central to the show. Or that his "I Wanna Be A Producer" dream sequence would be the moment when the show finally found its legs. Or how perfect his aghast expression would be when he sees that the play that Bialystock wants to bring to the stage is a romp titled "Springtime for Hitler." Or that the Act 2 opener, "That Face," would transform from a throwaway dance number to a charming highlight of the show.

I also was blindsided by the many smart moments that didn't exist or I missed in previous versions. Foremost of these is the characterization of Ulla, the Swedish bombshell. In previous productions, she was all legs and breasts and perfect dance moves. Here, in close-up, there's a person under the platinum hair. And as characterized by the Jenna Elfman-esque Elizabeth Broadhurst, she's awkward and (deliberately) not much of a dancer ... which makes much more sense in the show, raising Ulla from being a one-note dirty joke. Equally strong while giving more traditional interpretations of their parts are Curt Dale Clark as the clueless director and Sean Blake as his "common law assistant."

Another unexpected element: The ending here has smart touches of directing, design and performance that give it a clarity and sensibility missing from previous versions. For once, I understand why "Prisoners of Love" would be just the right follow up to "Springtime for Hitler."

The production lacks a strong period feel (some tossed in contemporary references get laughs but damage the show) but makes up for it with spirited performances from the company. Maximum use is made of the limited space, particularly in the Act 1 little old ladies showstopper "Along Came Bialy." And the flaws, for the most part, can be blamed on the show rather than its presentation. Barring a return of Lane and Broderick, this is as solid a version of this show as you are likely to find in these parts.

Plus, adding kielbasa and potato pancakes to the buffet was a nice touch.

Maureen McGovern is not a household name. But if you are of a certain age and you hear the first few bars of "The Morning After" ("The Poseidon Adventure" theme) you might be hit with a pang of nostalgia.

Far from a one-hit wonder, though, McGovern evolved from 1970s pop singer to world-class cabaret vocalist, debuting at Carnegie Hall in 1989 and becoming a staple in New York clubs and concert halls.

Her appearance Aug. 8 as part of the IU Summer Music Festival could easily have been just another visiting artist concert, no different than a performance given in St. Louis or St. Petersburg. But it proved to be much more than that, thanks to the involvement of IU faculty and students. The show opened with four numbers by the Festival Big Band. The first two were most exciting, serving as a coming-out party for new-tothe-faculty Corey Christiansen, a guitarist who should be on any music lover's radar.

McGovern then joined for a big-band set, led by IU prof Steve Houghton, who has worked with the her for 15 years. That connection-and McGovern's obvious respect for expert musicianship, lent a joyful quality to the scat-heavy set. Post-intermission, IU's Studio Orchestra joined to fill out the stage and the sound. Here, McGovern soared, with take-your-breath-away readings of standards, including Harold Arlen's "The Man That Got Away" and Kurt Weill's "My Ship." And by easing into music of another era with the likes of "The Moon is a Harsh Mistress" and "When I Die," she and her players made a convincing case that great songwriting didn't end in the 1950s.
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