MTW’s ‘The Producers’ is painful to watch… but in a good way!

Sarah Cornell is “fantastic” as Ulla.

By Vicki Paris Goodman

Racy, funny, sweet, outrageous and enormously entertaining. That’s Musical Theater West’s new production of The Producers, Mel Brooks’ enduring musical comedy that makes delicious fun of old Broadway.
Let’s just say I smiled so long my face hurt. The belly laughs made my sides hurt. I guess I was hurting pretty much all over. It was worth it.
The Producers looks in on the fiasco that has become the life of Broadway producer Max Bialystock (Michael Kostroff). At one time wildly successful, Bialystock has lately produced a string of mediocre flops, most of them closing after just a few performances despite the producer’s best efforts.
Enter fearfully timid accountant Leo Bloom (Larry Raben) who has arrived to do Bialystock’s bookkeeping. Honest to a fault, Bloom merely muses out loud his realization that Bialystock could be much more financially successful producing a total bomb than a smash hit.
Enlightened, Bialystock convinces a reluctant but unhappily employed Bloom to partner up with him in search of a sure-fire catastrophe of a show. They find one all right. But the result is not exactly what the pair anticipated.
Kostroff’s Bialystock is a gruff grizzly bear of a guy who’s used to looking out for number one. Watching him woo the elderly widows who finance his shows in exchange for his affections has always struck me as a bit, shall we say, unseemly. Then again, the outrageous is the hallmark of Brooks’ show. And how many real-life 80-year-olds possess insatiable libidos, anyway? Call it theatrical license.
Raben does an adorable bundle-of-nerves, innocent little-boy routine and wraps our knowing hearts around his pinky. For all the times he seeks security from his blanky, he may as well just resort to sucking his thumb. But no, he sticks with the blanky. Contrast Bialystock’s crustiness against Bloom’s not-so-regular-guy persona. Bialy can’t help making Bloom stronger, while Bloom softens Bialy. A partnership made in Heaven. Let’s just say Kostroff and Raben develop endearing chemistry.
A very tall Sarah Cornell plays the larger-than-life Swedish blonde Ulla, who comes to audition for the sure-fire catastrophe. Bialy and Bloom waste no time offering her the job of receptionist in their shabby, and not at all chic, New York City office. As played by Cornell, Ulla’s personality and stature add up to an almost overwhelming presence. Cornell is fantastic.
Nick Santa Maria plays Franz Liebkind, the Nazi-worshiping author of the certain disaster. The animation of his wing-flapping pet birds, kept in separate cages on the roof, was clever and quirky and good for more than one laugh.
As Roger DeBris, director of Bialy and Bloom’s guaranteed flop, David Engel adroitly sports an evening gown and heels while his positively flaming partner Carmen Ghia (Michael Paternostro) shows Bialy and Bloom into DeBris’ very pink flat. Paternostro’s protracted and ultra-pouty exit positively defines “drama queen.”
Steven Glaudini is the genius who directs this terrific production.
Robin Wagner’s beautiful set converts effortlessly from the theater’s corner street scene to Bialy’s dingy office to Liebkind’s roof (with those inane birds) to DeBris’ fluffy pink abode. Amazing.
Well, The Producers never looked better. If only the muscles in my face had had a chance to relax. It hurts to smile for over two hours straight. Ouch.
The Producers continues at Carpenter Performing Arts Center, on the campus of Cal State University Long Beach, at 6200 Atherton St., in Long Beach, through February 15. Ticket prices are $30 to $78. Tickets are available in person at the box office, 4350 E. 7th St. (corner of Ximeno), or by calling (562) 856-1999, ext. 4 or ext. 224.

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