To end its 50th season, Annapolis Summer Garden Theater has challenged itself with one of the biggest and most popular musicals ever to hit Broadway: Mel Brooks’ The Producers. Winner of a record 12 Tony Awards in 2001 and running for more than 2,500 performances, the show sought to hilariously offend everyone — Jews, producers, actors, homosexuals, Nazis … the list goes on. Brooks’ blockbuster set the stage for the kind of hard-to-get ticket that is being matched only by the current hit, Hamilton.
It’s a big musical, with choreography, music and acting that have to be over the top to work; have you ever seen subtlety in any Mel Brooks movie? Annapolis Summer Garden Theater smartly turned the reins over to local directing veteran Jerry Vess, who strikes a nice balance between the bigness of Broadway and the limits of community theater. A tight, seven-piece band led by Ken Kimble sounds bigger, the original choreography is nicely adapted by Emily Frank, and Anita O’Connor’s music direction helps a talented cast confidently deliver on such songs as It’s Bad Luck to Say Good Luck on Opening Night.
Costumer Jocelyn Odell brings Brooks’ wacky German vision — think pretzel heads and beer-stein jewelry — brilliantly to the stage. The costumes emulate those that helped make the original so memorable.
The plot is simple: Down and out Broadway producer Max Bialystock (B. Thomas Rinaldi) ropes in straitlaced and timid accountant Leo Bloom (Nathan Bowen) to stage a purposely horrible musical, Springtime for Hitler, and abscond to Rio with the money they raised when it closes after one night. The wrinkle, of course, is that it becomes a smash hit.
Rinaldi hits all the right notes as Max, and his body type, voice and attitude are perfect for the role — though opening weekend tentativeness zapped some of the zing from Brooks’ zingers. Late in the second act, when he reviews all that’s happened while sitting in a jail cell, he makes Betrayed masterful: funny, even a touch emotional.
Rinaldi and Bowen work well together, evoking a Laurel and Hardy dynamic. Bowen’s baritone lends itself well to I Want to Be a Producer. As actor, he allows Leo’s uptightness to be comical but not unbounded — for that would mean competing with so many unbound characters that Brooks has in store for us. Characters including —
• Franz Leibkind, the Springtime for Hitler playwright who, on his rooftop with his Nazi pigeons, reminisces about his past (In Old Bavaria), forces Max and Leo to sing along to Adolf’s favorite song (Der Gutten Tag Hop-Clop) and has them swear to never dishonor Adolf Elizabeth Hitler. Josh Mooney, complete with liederhosen and Nazi helmet, is hilarious as Franz, his bright smile and energy surpassed only by his sidesplitting seriousness when tending to the fuhrer’s honor.
• Roger DeBris, the flamboyant “worst director in New York,” whom Max attempts to sign to ensure the show flops, and his “common-law assistant” Carmen Ghia. Pete Thompson as Roger and Kevin James Logan as Carmen are brilliant together and apart, and bring one of the most popular numbers of the show, Keep it Gay, to hilarious life. Logan’s flaccid fluidity is so beautifully comical that the audience has no choice but to laugh. Playing Hitler during the show-within-a-show, Thompson’s Roger romps mischievously and riotously as he sings Heil myself!
• Ulla Inga Hansen etc. etc. (a long long name, pure Brooks), the tall, beautiful Swedish blonde who auditions for Max’s next show and becomes his “Secretary-slash-receptionist.”
Max lusts, Leo longs and Ulla titillates in a complete 180 from Max’s older women benefactors. As the always smiling statuesque Ulla, Erica Miller gives us a syllable-chewing faux Swedish accent that works to perfection in When You’ve Got It, Flaunt It, which gives her body, Max’s libido and Leo’s heart quite the workout.
• The Usherettes, Ashley Gladden and Amanda Cimaglia, musically narrate, and a fine ensemble provides wonderful voices, dancing and characters, none more uproariously than almost the entire cast in Along Came Bialy, better known in theater circles as the little old lady walker song.
While there was that tentativeness on the second night, accompanied by some screechy microphone levels, little details like that always work out as a run progresses. Here’s the important thing:
Annapolis Summer Garden Theater has gone all out for its 50th birthday. With Jerry Vess’ perfectly paced adaptation and a cast that’s having a blast, the company fits Mel Brooks’ comic genius and this big Broadway show onto a local stage. It’s the audience that gets to celebrate.
Act quickly … several dates are already sold out.
About two hours 50 minutes with one intermission.
Thru Sept. 4: Th-Su 8pm, $22, rsvp: www.summergarden.com.