We’ve covered quite a bit of unique, challenging and thought-provoking theater at CL lately, and have been thrilled that there have been mostly great things to say. It’s a credit to Tampa Bay’s cultural scene that there are both a thirst for those kinds of productions, and the talent to pull them off.
Sometimes, though, you just wanna be entertained.
That’s where American Stage in the Park comes in. For more than three decades, this Bay area tradition has combined a casual atmosphere under the stars, superior production values and classic theater fare to offer local playgoers a substantial theatrical experience that’s not intimidatingly stuffy, and won’t result in a political argument in the car on the way home.
While ASitP specialized in Shakespeare for years, more recently the run has branched out into comedies and musicals with a Broadway-esque bent, and the current production of The Producers — the 1967 satirical Mel Brooks film that managed to win 12 Tonys when adapted for the stage in the early ‘00s despite thoroughly skewering Great White Way culture — fits that mold perfectly. A balanced blend of clever commentary, broad wit and all-singing, all-dancing spectacle, The Producers seems like a no-brainer for the Demens Landing Park stage, and this production lends credence to that notion by delivering on all fronts.
The plot concerns a producer, Max Bialystock, who was formerly the toast of Broadway but more recently has fallen out of favor, with disastrous financial results. More interested in regaining his fortune (or at least getting out of debt) than his reputation, Bialystock pressgangs a reluctant accountant into helping him put on the worst show Broadway has ever seen, allowing them to keep most of the investors’ money by cooking the books when the cheap show flops and closes early.
They find the perfect piece of offensive, unwatchable dreck in Springtime for Hitler: A Gay Romp with Adolf and Eva at Berchtesgaden, a love letter to der Führer written by a former Nazi living in squalor in Greenwich Village. All that’s left is to cast it with the least talented people possible, and everything should go according to plan. But where’s the fun in that?
Lauded local favorite Matthew McGee plays Bialystock like he was born for the role, channeling Nathan Lane’s kinetic stage histrionics more than Mel Brooks’s cinematic facial tics while adding his own larger-than-life vibe. As Leo Bloom, American Stage newcomer James LaRosa is also marvelous, playing the accountant as nebbishy and nervous as he gradually finds a heart, a spine and himself. Together, the two evince just the right amount of chemistry — which is to say, none at first, then growing into the archetypical odd couple over the course of the play. Gretchen Beiber, Scott Daniel and Alex Ringler are also wonderful as ingenue Ulla, flamboyant director Roger Debris and Debris’ assitant Carmen Ghia, respectively, and Jim Sorensen steals scenes as ex-Nazi playwright Franz Liebkind.
Rye Mullis directs with big, confident Broadway flair — many scenes take extreme advantage of the amazing set design, filling the stage with motion and emotion — and the music is pretty much flawless, evocative on occasion but more often bouncy and infectious. The costumes are impressive, too, at least from this reviewer’s seat at a slight distance from the stage. It’s a big ensemble, and when everyone’s on stage, there’s plenty of showy variety.
Opening night wasn’t perfect; the choreography was a little loose on occasion, and there were also some slight but distracting issues with sound. These are minor quibbles, however, in the face of such an ambitious show produced and performed so successfully. This is professional entertainment, done very, very well, and what more can you ask for in a fun night out on the grass under the St. Petersburg sky?