(August 19, 2008)

Ham Comes to the Dinner Theater Menu

Peter D. Kramer/The Journal News

Sixteen months after Mel Brooks' 12-time Tony-winner closed on Broadway, "The Producers" comes to Westchester Broadway Theatre in Elmsford in a production that runs into November.

Starring Bob Amaral and Joel Newsome - two veterans of the show's second national tour - the production is directed by David Edwards.

"The Producers" is the story of an unscrupulous Broadway producer and a meek accountant - Max Bialystock and Leo Bloom - who cook up a scheme to con little old ladies out of millions, put on the worst musical ever, and walk away with the money.

It was a 1968 film, starring Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder, and took Broadway by storm in 2001, starring Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick. Lane and Broderick reprised their roles in a 2005 movie version of the musical.

Now, regional theaters are taking a crack at the stage musical and Westchester Broadway is one of the first ones out of the blocks.

With some great show tunes - "I Wanna Be a Producer," "Till Him" and even "Springtime for Hitler" -and a cast with some impressive credits, the production has promise.

But Edwards fails to deliver on that promise and what ends up on stage is unfocused and uneven.

The problems start at the top.

As Bialystock, a character who once knew success - "I used to be the king, the king of old Broadway," he sings - Amaral falls short in nearly every way measurable.

He dances only slightly, doesn't have the breath to carry many of Brooks' fast-paced lyrics and hams up the role to the point of making it unrecognizable. If Max is the heart of the show, is there a doctor in the house?

Start with his look: He forgoes the role's trademark comb-over.

A comb-over says a lot about a guy, and Max in particular. There's a vanity, a desperation, an urgency to a comb-over that speaks volumes about the man doing the combing. Amaral's hair is perfectly coiffed.

Amaral mugs his way through the entire show, playing Max in a style that seems too over-the-top even for a character as broad as Bialystock. He's working far too hard, milking every joke with all the subtlety of a steamroller.

What Mostel or Lane achieved with a raised eyebrow, Amaral insists on doing with an exaggerated roll of the eyes and a "that was a joke, folks" delivery. It gets old quickly and robs the role of any shred of credibility.

One of the compelling things about Max is his weariness. Show business has put him through the ringer and now this nebbishy little accountant, Leo, is offering him a way out of obscurity.

He jumps at it, but that weariness still has to be there. With Amaral, it's not - and it never was.

As Leo, Joel Newsome has a fine, confident voice and can certainly dance.

The song "That Face," with Karyn McNay as Ulla, is a promising start to Act 2, but even here, the pieces don't click.

Ulla strikes provocative poses to entice Leo, but too often Newsome isn't even looking at her and that connection is lost.

Leo is a character who grows from a mild-mannered mouse into a man, all in the hope of one day wearing a producer's hat.

But Newsome takes Leo too far too fast and loses his vulnerable sweetness altogether. It's an acting choice, one supposes, but one that a director should have talked the actor out of.

One would think that people who had played the roles night in and night out in a first-rate professional tour would have a deeper command of these characters.

One would be wrong.

Still, the supporting cast provides welcome relief.

Eric Anderson, as the Nazi playwright Franz Liebkind, brings an invigorating energy to his loopy character. Despite wearing a helmet that is too big by far, often obscuring his eyes, Anderson soldiers on, delivering some of the night's most prolonged laughs and applause.

Craig Fols, as the pompous director Roger DeBris, rattles off his lines in the first act but makes a fine comeback as Hitler in Act 2. (How many reviews have ever contained that sentence?)

John West mines the character Carmen Ghia for everything its worth. As DeBris' "common-law assistant," West is a rail-thin mix of just-under-the-surface nerves and not-so-subtle put-downs. His lingering exits become a running gag.

Even Amy Griffin, in the tiny role of Hold-Me Touch-Me - one of Max's little-old-lady backers - is more believable than Amaral. She's playing it real and getting the laughs.

McNay, as Ulla, is athletic and appealing, but her showstopper number, "When You Got It, Flaunt It," suffered from pitch problems on opening night.

WBT's is the first of many productions of "The Producers" that will pop up in coming seasons.

Some of WBT's production team have already moved on to the next one: Edwards will play DeBris and WBT choreographer Matthew Vargo will choreograph again at the Gateway Playhouse in Patchogue, on Long Island. The show opens next week.

But few productions will likely have the technical prowess of the dinner theater, where Andrew Gmoser's lights, Peter Barbieri Jr.'s set, and costumes coordinated by Matthew Hmesath give the musical a first-rate polish.

The producers even find a way to use the dinner theater's giant video screens.

An overhead camera captures a Busby Berkeley moment where the ensemble forms a swastika during the "Springtime for Hitler" production number. In yet another sign of this production's lack of focus, the swastika quickly fails to hold its shape.

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