IF YOU GO
What: Satirical Mel Brooks show about two producers trying to make the worst musical in history
When: 8 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday, 2 p.m. Sundays through March 30
Where: 701 5th Avenue South, Naples
Information: (239) 263-7990, naplesplayers.org
Something else: The downtown parking garage fills up quickly during season. Use the complimentary valet at Truluck's or the garage near Cambier Park
On the Web: More theater news at The Stage Door blog
The Naples Players threw everything at the audience Wednesday. A kick line of goose-stepping Nazis. Old ladies with a rat-a-tat chorus of walkers. Dancing birds. Bialystock & Bloom are in town for "The Producers." With sets and costumes rented straight from Broadway, this show packs a splashy punch.
Based on the Mel Brooks film, "The Producers" offers a satire of Broadway. Meek accountant Leo Bloom (James Little) and failed theatrical producer Max Bialystock (Bill Molesky) discover they can make more money with a flop than a hit.
Now, with $2M on the line, Bialystock & Bloom are in business. They pair the worst script in New York with a cross-dressing narcissist director (a remarkably game but woefully miscast Randall Kenneth Jones) whose one thought is to "Keep It Gay!" "Springtime For Hitler" opens on Broadway - and becomes an unlikely hit. What happens now?
Give the Naples Players credit. Most community theaters dare not touch "The Producers" - and not only for the risqué content. Even if the deep reserves of amateur theatrical talent at Sugden Community Theatre struggle to breathe life into the show at times, "Producers" still represents a strong effort from the group to present more modern, challenging fare. Between the high-energy production numbers, a couple standout performances and the trademark Mel Brooks humor, Wednesday's opening night audience left more than satisfied.
Director Dallas Dunnagan, working with choreographer Dawn Lebrecht Fornara, gets the show, that much is clear. The pair know this is a satirical farce; they just haven't convinced most of their cast to go far enough outside their comfort zone yet. While the actors are obviously having fun on stage (the smiles make for a pleasant change), "The Producers" needs truly over-the-top performances from the least little old lady to the lead producer to drive home the outrageous satire.
Dunnagan's show feels unduly safe. Safe equates to a sort of Gypsy Rose Lee peek-a-boo with the edgy Brooks humor that winds through "Producers" without any eventual payoff. Even "Keep It Gay," with leather-clad muscle men and dancing boys in purple velvet tights arrives carefully crimped so as not to offend too much.
Dunnagan, perhaps sensing the show needs every bit of momentum it can get, propels "The Producers" at full blast every second of the night. Loud and fast are her words to live by.
The maximum overdrive directive robs "Producers" of any nuances, but the runaway-train vibe gives a definite (and needed) excitement. I understand the difficulties of community theatre casting, but I wish the show had at least some subtlety - or even a bit more chemistry between the lead and supporting actors.
Lebrecht Fornara's choreography offers several bright spots, particularly a tap-dance sequence in "Springtime for Hitler" and "I Wanna Be A Producer." Old lady walker number "Along Came Bialy" feels (and sounds) more like a percussion number than a dance break. Audiences who adored "42nd Street" might recognize a few moves from that show in "I Wanna Be A Producer."
James Little makes for a suave, smooth-voiced Leo (the Matthew Broderick role). Little, a longtime musical theatre linchpin of the Naples Players, has the voice for Leo. "I Wanna Be A Producer" and "That Face" soar behind his dulcet tones. I do wish Dunnagan had pushed him to go up a gear or two, although that may come as the production settles into its month-long run.
Bill Molesky brings volume and a willingness to go for any joke to his Max Bialystock (the Nathan Lane role). A fumbling, groping, smooching game of "The Milkmaid and the Well-Hung Stableboy" with check-writer Evelyn Kasper gets early laughs.
Molesky connects reasonably well with Kat Ebaugh, who brings a Marilyn Monroe singing to JFK sexpot vibe to her Ulla. Ebaugh vamps, twirls and swallows the guttural Swedish consonants with ease. Flirty "That Face" proves her highlight.
Two real standouts emerge. Both Mark Vanagas (Carmen Ghia) and Michael Millspaugh (Franz Liebkind) offer bold, direct takes on their characters that rise out of the show.
Vanagas, in slinky black, with loops of gold chains and a wig that makes him resemble nothing so much as a skinny, gay lady Mr. Spock, saves the show nearly single-handedly. Besides the scene-stealing Carmen (wait for the moment he offers a one-handed kiss-off from behind a curtain), he pops up in multiple spots in the ensemble. Tapping. Fiddling. Dancing. Wearing sequins and bearing a huge bouquet of roses. His is the type of razor-witted performance Dunnagan should tell her cast to strive for.
Millspaugh, in his Naples Players debut, brings a fierce anger to crazed playwright Franz, who keeps Nazi birds in coops on his roof. Millspaugh charges straight down the barrel of the ridiculous - with wonderful results. His brief scenes serve as tentpoles for the (purposeful) utter insanity of a musical devoted to Adolph Hitler, complete with a dancing swastika on the stage.
Austin Sabb grabs the vocal spotlight in what was otherwise a rare off night for the Naples Players. His beautiful, clear lead tenor in "Springtime for Hitler" surprises; kudos to music director Charles Fornara for excellent placement. In other places though, particularly the female chorus, Fornara's orchestra simply drowns out the vocals - or the cast seems to be singing in a different key entirely. Microphone issues plagued scenes in both halves.
"The Producers" offers a potential glimpse into the future of the Naples Players, with a more modern catalog, rental sets & costumes and by far the strongest show since "42nd Street" almost two years ago. Not a perfect show, by far, but one that gives visible joy to both its cast and its audience. Who could ask for more from the city's community theater group as they celebrate their 60th season?
Full Disclosure: Randall Kenneth Jones, an actor widely involved with the local amateur theatre scene, also writes "Business Class," a column for the Business section of the Daily News.