Mel Brooks' The Prodcuers is weird. I had the occasion to contemplate this once more as I had been set up to review the Sunset Playhouse production of the show this past weekend. The idea of a couple of Broadway producers looking to get rich by developing an epic failure is a really clever one. It that had been appealing to me since I first saw the original film on a local indie TV station as a kid. And what with all of the movies that have been brought to the stage over the years and musical format, it seem like a natural fit for this stage. But at the same time it felt kind of strange.
A big commercial Broadway musical that spoofed big commerce on Broadway really IS the sort of thing but it’s making fun of. A big portion of what makes this so successful in a place like Elm Grove and not, say, the Marcus Center (or anywhere else a Broadway show would tour) is the fact that the Sunset Playhouse’s Furlan Auditorium is a relatively small stage where more of a textured feel to it. The audience is closer to the detail and so there's more personality in each detail present. Granted, the Furlan is one of the largest small stages in town. But for a big, over-the-top Broadway-style show, a space like the one that the Sunset Playhouse is working with in Elm Grove is relatively cozy.
Thanks to director Tommy Lueck, the Sunset Playhouse production only embraces the strange irony of creating a big, over-the-top musical in an effort to, among other things, make fun of big over the top musicals. I’ve seen a number of production of the show and I know that they don’t always manage that. And it’s hard to pinpoint exactly where Lueck had company or going right that previous productions haven’t been able to manage.
The most interesting thing about the production is the fact that there are such a range of different talent levels on stage. It’s such a range of different types of performers all assuming different roles which may or may not fit perfectly into the type of thing they’re best at. And what you’ll get this with just about every production of any kind, bigger budgets allow for more of a uniformity and the overall feel of a show. The diversity of what is present on stage in Elm Grove makes the size of the cast that much more impressive. It’s not a whole lot of soulless faces and legs and arms and things. You tend to get that in the touring Broadway production. Everybody looks identical. It’s disturbing. And not in a good way that’s necessarily intended.
With a small, relatively intimate large stage the Sunset Playhouse is able to play-up individualities between different characters and different actors in a way that makes the large panorama of everything and present on stage that much more impressive. True to Brooks' cinematic style, there’s a lot of throwaway visual gags and in the musical. In any larger, more polished production all of those details feel washed out in all the glossy uniformity. With the level of texture that Lueck is able to work with here, we get a greater level of accent and in the midst every element of the cast. And yes, that is going to include some imperfections here or there. But that naturalistic imperfection is the type of thing that makes the smaller stages so intense.
All of this provides clarity to tragedy of the over-priced touring Broadway show. So much money is being pumped into touring Broadway shows. They can come to town and they can pretend that what they're doing is live theatre. And in that sense it is. It’s not live the way this is. It’s not live the way Lueck and company manage in Elm Grove with The Producers.
Sunset Playhouse’s staging of The Producers runs through Aug. 5 at the Furlan Auditorium on 700 Wall Street in Elm Grove. For ticket reservations, call 262-782-4430 or visit www.sunsetplayhouse.com. A comprehensive review of the show runs in the next print edition of The Shepherd-Express.