If Cecil B. De Mille could have made an epic satire, The Producers, which played at the Segal Centre until July 10, would have been it.
The Dora Wasserman Yiddish Theatre, in partnership with the Côte St. Luc Dramatic Society (CSLDS), stages a panoramic, singing, dancing laugh-fest that will leave your cheeks aching from the smile that rarely leaves your face. And it’s a subject you’d never thought would make you laugh out loud, let alone smile.
For that you can credit the black sense of humour belonging to playwrights Mel Brooks and Thomas Meehan, and the clever and detail-driven direction of Anisa Cameron.
Cameron has come to know her Jewish audiences intimately as longtime drama educator at Bialik High School and artistic director of the CSLDS. She has proven time and again she can wow any audience, no matter their roots, with her lavishly staged musicals but this one takes a special touch.
The plot heralds the deepest pitfall she has overcome, namely the Nazi-themed entertainment that becomes the action’s focus.
Washed-up producer Max Bialystock is reduced to servicing aging matrons who remember his heyday, a running gag that lends the show its only tired moments, to raise seed money (excuse the pun) for his continuing string of flops.
When he hires an accountant to juggle his books, he catches his first lucky break with regards to his theatrical reputation but a disastrous one as it turns out.
The accountant comes up with a cockamamie scheme to make money from flops and Bialystock convinces him to carry it through with him in the funniest scene of the show thanks to the comic chemistry and all-out stamina of Sam Stein and Mikey Samra. Stein as Bialystock makes lovable the world-weary scoundrel still grasping for the brass ring. Samra is hysterical as the angst-ridden accountant who still carries the security shmatte from his babyhood in his suit’s breast pocket.
To achieve the ultimate flop, they choose a script about Hitler jack-booted to them by a hulking neo-Nazi named Hans, played with enthusiasm and without guile by the wonderful Elan Kunin.
When they involve a gay production team based on the Village People bent on dressing Der Fuhrer in spangles, they are sure the show will tank but even their mostly Jewish audience sees it as a winning satire.
The Jews in the Segal opening night audience went a little quiet when they witnessed the start of the Springtime for Hitler number but actor-singer-choreographer Jonathan Patterson soon put everyone at ease with his campy rendition.
Cameron also made the very wise decision not to display any swastikas on the set or the costumes that would have worked against the humour of the piece.
The audience ends up having a terrific time, all 2-1/2 hours of it. These seem to fly by and can be discerned only by a little stiffness in the limbs as if you’ve just weathered a long flight to reach a stellar destination.
Also worthy of mention is Alisha Ruiss as the producers’ curvy and sweet-natured receptionist Ulla and Ryan Kligman as Patterson’s pouting sidekick.
Kenny Stein has all manner of memorable bits including his “little wooden boy” audition, and Brandon Schwartz’s tenor is worth hearing even as a brown-shirt.
Jeremy Gordaneer’s multi-layered set, Louise Bourret’s costumes (especially her showgirls’ headdresses), Géraldine Courchesne’s wigs, Luc Prairie’s lighting and Nick Burgess’ seven-piece band coalesce to make this an all-round treat.
Dialogue is both in Yiddish, a first for The Producers, and in English but surtitles smooth out the transitions.
It’s fitting to see Côte St. Luc mayor and CSLDS founder Mitchell Brownstein on the judge’s bench and his lawyer-brother Herbert working the case brought against Bialystock. They don’t have to plead for the audience’s clemency.