REVIEW by Anthony Chase: THE PRODUCERS AT THE KAVINOKY

Everything about the production of Mel Brooks’ The Producers currently onstage at the Kavinoky Theatre suggests a determination to start the season with a roar. Even before auditions were scheduled, excitement rippled through the theater community when it was determined that Buffalo musical theater legend Lynne Kurdziel Formato would return from North Carolina to direct. (Generations of former UB students owe their careers to her mentorship). Then, when the Kavinoky announced a dream cast, it was clear that this granddad of Buffalo theaters had gotten the jump on the city’s top talent.

Norm Sham and Brian Mysliwy are paired as disreputable Broadway producer Max Bialystock and his weak-willed accountant Leo Bloom who concoct a scheme to make a million dollars by overcapitalizing a Broadway show, and then ensuring that it flops.

Anyone who feared that The Producers was an invitation for comically fearless Mysliwy to burst over the top like a Roman candle, can relax. Under the directorial vision and control of a musical theater master, his every gesture and achingly funny emotional breakdown is motivated and measured. In fact, casting such an energetic clown in the role of the more subdued and submissive Leo Bloom, gives a feeling of freshness to the familiar material, by relocating its comic center. Now, unlike other Bialystocks before him, Sham is able to give a more relaxed, comically nuanced, and cunningly manipulative interpretation to the outrageously bodacious character. The choice is very appealing in the intimate Kavinoky space. A believable bond of friendship between the characters is vital to the show, and indeed, Mysliwy and Sham make a most appealing duo.

The hilarious pretext for the show is that to make their dishonest plan work, Bialystock and Bloom have to be sure that the show is a financial disaster. They search for the most abominable play ever written, and (after rejecting a stage adaptation of Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis) they find the mother lode in “Springtime for Hitler: A Gay Romp With Eva and Adolf at Berchtesgaden.” Not satisfied with the offensively bad material, they hire the world’s lousiest director, Roger DeBris, a man who makes Liberace look understated, along with his entire “the Village People”  production team. They even go so far as to cast their sex bomb Swedish secretary Ulla in the show, and to give the title role to the Nazi author of the play.

This mix of oversized characters allows for nonstop hilarity, which the talented cast fulfills in abundance.

Greg Gjurich is nothing less than astonishing as Roger DeBris. His big moments come in Act One’s “Keep it Gay,” and the Act Two show stopper, “Springtime for Hitler.” No comic nuance is squandered in this arguably perfect performance. Your only complaint might be that we’re laughing too hard to hear his next line. Gjurih is supported (or should I say aided and abetted?) by Marc Sacco as Roger’s companion and homme fatale assistant, Carmen Ghia, whose effeminate antics are delicious.

Todd Benzin is sublime as Nazi playwright Franz Liebkind. His renditions of ‘Der Guten Tag Hop-Clop” and “Have you Ever Heard the German Band,” and are models of deranged merriment.

Arianne Davidow is an actress of such talent and beauty that, when auditioning from a rich but limited talent pool, directors have often miscast her. Not in this case. She embodies the pulchritude and lunacy of Ulla, the determined secretary-showgirl brilliantly, nailing every line and moment, from “When You’ve Got it, Flaunt it” to “Springtime for Hitler.”

Also making vivid appearances in a variety of character roles is irrepressible Charmagne Chi, who shines as an oversexed little old lady, as the rejected showgirl, as butch lighting designer Shirley Markowitz, and as the Follies Bratwurtz girl.

Kurdziel Formato and her troupe of zanies exploit every theatrical cliché the Mel Brooks script affords, including unhinged tributes to the Ziegfeld Follies, to Busby Berkley, to Judy Garland at the Palace, and to numerous Broadway shows and styles.

Set Designer David King has provided Kurdziel Formato with a set that shifts smoothly from one scene to the next, making every transition efficient and giving the show a lively and unrelenting comic pace. Costumes and properties are faultless. After a bumpy start on opening night, Mark Vona’s musical direction emerges as strong.

Happily, this is just the first of book musicals in the season with Kurdziel Formato at the helm. This winter, she will return with the ABBA musical, Mamma Mia! Oh what fun we have in store.

Through Oct 1, Thu & Fri at 7:30, Sat at 3:30 & 7:30, Sun at 2. Kavinoky Theatre, 320 Porter Ave. (829-7668). www.kavinokytheatre.com