'The Producers' Produces Big Laughs

Cabrillo Music Theatre presents a Broadway-caliber 'The Producers' at the Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza.

It was only 10 years ago that The Producers, Mel Brooks' stage adaptation of his own legendary film comedy, opened huge on Broadway and won more Tony Awards than any other show in history. The hit show has now toured around the world, and Cabrillo Music Theatre has brought a particularly faithful and professional version to the Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza.

Cabrillo Music Theatre, a resident repertory company at the Civic Arts Plaza, brands itself as "Broadway in Your Backyard," and it was apparent that their goal was not to reinvent The Producers but rather to present something as close to the original show as possible. In this manner, they succeeded admirably. Everything, from the brightly colored sets to the choreography, is a near-direct replica of the original production. And that's a good thing, because the performances are strong, the production values are high and the entire show has a smooth, crisp momentum to it. 

The story of The Producers is well-known. It's about a down-and-out Broadway producer who teams up with a fearful accountant to produce a guaranteed flop on Broadway and pocket the money they've raised. They choose the most heinous show they can find: "Springtime for Hitler: A New Neo-Nazi Musical," but their plan backfires when the show becomes an unexpected smash hit. 

The Producers is a fantastic show. It manages to send up and pay loving tribute to the classic Broadway musical, striking that golden balance between parody and homage, biting satire and heartfelt love-song. The show has a nearly endless stream of great jokes, but it also works perfectly well as an old-fashioned Broadway musical. The the songs are catchy, the story moves fast, and there's a genuine sweetness that undercuts even the raunchiest humor.

The pedigree of the actors is top-notch. The central role of Max Bialystock, played in the past by such luminaries as Zero Mostel in the original film and Nathan Lane on Broadway, is portrayed here by Michael Kostroff. Kostroff, a veteran television actor, is best known for his recurring role in the acclaimed HBO series "The Wire." He's also a seasoned stage performer, and this role gives him the chance to show off some ample comedy chops.

Kostroff's performance is hilarious and charismatic throughout, and he elicits a great deal of laughs from the subtlest of reactions and double-takes, often playing the small moments with more success than the larger, bombastic ones. It's a great performance throughout but particularly strong when he isn't trying too hard.

Larry Raben as Leopold Bloom, the other half of the titular duo, delivers an extremely funny and appealing performance. Raben's Bloom is a particularly boyish variation, less a nebbishy man and more an overgrown child, but he also has a lovely singing voice and an effortless charm. Even with the extreme levels of neurosis that the character exhibits, it's still utterly believable when the knockout blond Ulla falls for him.

Both Raben and Kostroff have played these roles before, and it's very clear their performances have a lived-in confidence that comes from more than just a few weeks of rehearsal. 

And, most importantly, Raben and Kostroff are great as a team. For The Producers to really work, you have to believe that these characters care about each other. The show is a very silly, jokes-upon-jokes-upon-jokes, but it also has a beating heart. The chemistry between the two actors is undeniable, and, by the end of the show, their friendship feels very real. 

The supporting cast is very strong. Sarah Cornell as Ulla has legs up to her chin and flawless comic timing, and David Engel is a riot as Springtime's flamboyant director, Roger De Bris.

Franz Lievkind, the Nazi author of the show-within-a-show, is the most thankless of the major roles, but James W. Greussing Jr. manages to stay grounded and genuine within a rather outlandish role.

The only actor who doesn't quite hit the mark is Chris Caldwell Eckert as Carmen Ghia, Roger's common-law assistant. Eckert's manic take on the part often feels more like an amalgamation of silly quirks rather than a well-defined character, and, even in a play that demands a ham-fisted approach from its actors, Eckert seems particularly desperate for laughs.

The set design is also high-quality across the board, and the only problems I encountered were of a technical nature, like when a few sound cues didn't seem nearly as loud as they should have been-one scene, in particular, had nearly all of its tension deflated by tinny, quiet gunshots-but these are minor quibbles.

With deeply funny performances, slick choreography, and beautiful orchestrations, this is definitely a worthwhile night at the theater.

The Producers is directed by Steven Glaudini, with choreography by Matthew J. Vargo, and musical direction by Darryl Archibald. The lighting design is by Christina L. Munich, the sound design is Jonathan Burke. Christine Gibson is the wardrobe supervisor, and Mark Travis Hoyer does the hair and makeup design. 

The show is playing the rest of this weekend, as well as next weekend. There are performances on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday nights, as well as Saturday and Sunday matinees. 

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