Want to bathe in uproarious laughter before the holiday stress arrives? Then get to Joe Jefferson Playhouse (11 S. Carlen St.) before Nov. 20.
That’s when Mobile’s first-ever run of Mel Brooks’ classic musical “The Producers” ends and you lose your chance to catch one of the funniest performances Artifice has seen in the Azalea City. Besides, where else will you get to see Mobile theater regular Ed Kryger nearly naked and dancing onstage with a man wearing a codpiece?
If you’re looking for coy Noel Coward bon mots, this isn’t it. It’s Mel Brooks, which means it’s broad, inappropriate, a bit bawdy, risqué and drawn from his past in the Borscht Belt, television and films. It also means it’s hilarious.
Forget about the fourth wall. This is a self-aware satire, a musical poking fun at itself, its genre and oeuvre. It makes sure the audience knows the players know that the audience knows that the players know … well, you know.
The winking starts from the outset when a pair of singers brief the theater-goers on etiquette — cell phones and the like — and get in a dig about actor Gene Murrell by name. As Max Bialystock, one of the play’s titular pair of swindlers, Murrell handles the introductory number with his characteristic aplomb. The same bit has the evening’s first adult language; this isn’t for shrinking violets.
Jason McKenzie is timid accountant Leo Bloom, who stumbles upon their eventual scheme to solicit far more backing funds than needed for staging a surefire flop. His portrayal picks up steam back at Bloom’s accounting office where he daydreams about Broadway ambitions.
Barney March — normally a fixture at Mobile Theatre Guild — plays madcap ex-German soldier and playwright Franz Liebkind, whose adoring musical about Adolf Hitler is targeted by Bialystock and Bloom. He comes across as more loony than menacing and his coop chorus is absurd yet spot on.
Kristen O’Keefe is the other key European immigrant, Swedish bombshell Ulla, hired by the swindlers to fill “numerous positions” in their office. Both O’Keefe and March were good but their musical numbers stirred one of my picking points about the play.
The playhouse is less than ideal acoustically. In more works than this, I’ve noted times where singers’ voices got lost, which tells me it’s an architectural issue. When O’Keefe was on the floor during her song “If You’ve Got It, Flaunt It,” she might as well have sung into a pillow for a few bars.
Or maybe it’s my tinnitus raging in middle age. The issue wasn’t constant but I wish I could have made out more because Brooks’ lyrics are as humorous as his lines.
The dynamic of the play soars when the producers visit flamboyant director Roger DeBris, manifested by Jerel Ely. His interplay with Charlie Kelly as assistant Carmen Ghia is pitch perfect and captures Brooks’ zaniness exquisitely. There were times during their scenes I couldn’t stop laughing long enough to hear the following lines.
Of course Liebkind’s musical, with its opening number “Springtime for Hitler,” is what it’s always been: one of the most ridiculously memorable songs in Broadway history. Its relentless musical hook makes it that much harder to forget.
A passing thought as I watched was the film’s uproarious shots of the Broadway attendees aghast. I wondered how many of JJP’s potential audience can appreciate how scandalously tasteless this was in the 1960s.
A World War II veteran himself, Brooks originally conceived the screenplay in 1962 and couldn’t find backers. The conflict that claimed 75 million lives was about as near to them in time as 9/11 is to us, so imagine “a gay romp with Osama Bin Laden.” The absolute outrageousness is key to grasping its full breadth and, ultimately, the shocking comedic effect.
For those who saw only the original movie, there’s no hippie Hitler here. The workaround for modern tastes is far more preposterous and amusing. Never has the number “Heil Myself” been quite as sassy and you’ll never see a toothbrush moustache again without hearing the phrase “the German Ethel Merman.”
Keep your ears open. There are wonderful asides, including an obviously added line about a current Broadway blockbuster and numerous nods to various Brooks films.
There were a few technical glitches when I saw the last full dress rehearsal, namely problems with sound effects and dubbed lines. They didn’t detract from the overall product; its tongue-in-cheek nature gives good cover.
Friday and Saturday curtain is at 8 p.m. Sunday matinees are at 2 p.m.
For ticket information call 251-471-1534 or go to joejeffersonplayers.com.
So shine up those jackboots. To paraphrase Mr. Brooks, “Don’t be stupid, be a smarty, run to watch their Nazi party.”
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