BEVERLY - Barry Ivan, North Shore Music Theatre's new artistic director and executive producer, launched his inaugural season with a bang this week with the New England regional-theater premiere of "The Producers."
Mel Brooks's hilarious musical reimagining of his 1968 film is an homage to both old-school Broadway musicals and the borscht belt humor Brooks cut his teeth on. As staged by Tony Award-winning director and choreographer Susan Stroman, "The Producers" morphed into an exuberant celebration of musical comedy, with each production number building up to the final crescendo.
Director Bill Burns has his work cut out for him, honoring Stroman's original direction while reworking this proscenium-reliant show onto North Shore's arena stage. At first, the transition seems awkward, with the two opening numbers, "Opening Night" and "The King of Broadway," dragging a bit.
Another obvious challenge is "I Wanna Be a Producer," which was originally set up in an accounting office with clerks performing their endless duties in front of a row of file cabinets. When nerdy accountant Leo Bloom begins to daydream about being a producer, the file cabinets open to reveal a line of chorus girls, who step out and join in the song. Making this work in the round is tricky, and one wishes Burns wasn't so tied to Stroman's setup, because the accountants are placed around in a circle and the line of file cabinets rolls in on an odd angle, defeating the joke behind the number.
As the show moves along, though, Burns seems to find his stride, adapting kicklines by curving them around, and creating impressive dance patterns when the entire company is on stage. By the time we get to "Along Came Bialy," in which the little old ladies dance with their walkers, the differences between the proscenium and the arena stage have faded away.
While the production values are an essential part of the show, "The Producers" also requires a first-rate cast with terrific singing voices who can jump right into these outrageous characters. This North Shore production has an outstanding ensemble, starting with Scott Davidson and Jim Stanek as the unlikely producing partners Max Bialystock and Leo Bloom. As the burnt-out Bialystock, Davidson has the unenviable challenge of making audiences forget Nathan Lane, who created the role for the stage and then re-created it in the 2005 film version. But Davidson, who took on another role in the national touring company of "The Producers" when it played the Colonial Theatre in Boston, is clearly comfortable in this part, and has found ways to make it his own. The ultimate test is the exhausting second-act number "Betrayed," in which Bialystock reviews everything that's happened in the show so far. Davidson delivers the number with aplomb.
As Bloom, Stanek must erase memories of Matthew Broderick, and he doesn't waste any time. With his strong tenor and expressive face, he is reminiscent of actor Bill Irwin, combining a sense of naivete with impressive chops and charm.
Other standouts in the company include Patrick Wetzel as the mad Nazi playwright Franz Liebkind; Amy Bodnar as the love interest Ulla; Stuart Marland, doing a brilliant job overacting as director-turned-star Roger DeBris; and Fred Berman as Roger's mincing sidekick Carmen Ghia.
With "The Producers," Ivan has set a wonderfully playful tone at North Shore. This will be a season worth watching.