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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Over-the-Top 'Producers' Brings In the Laughs

Et Cetera TheaterYegor Druzhinin plays Leo Bloom, a two-bit producer whose plan to stage a Broadway flop goes hilariously wrong.��
Will wonders never cease? Anyone who has followed this newspaper's arts pages even fleetingly will know that its theater critic is afflicted with a ghastly disease: He is utterly incapable of appreciating anything even closely resembling a musical.

"There is nothing remotely entertaining," he has been heard to grouse glumly, "about a bunch of hyperactive people dancing and crooning uncontrollably at the most inopportune times to the sappiest music ever concocted before everyone suddenly, though predictably, arrives at the obligatory happy end."

This generally has been considered an untreatable, occasionally even contagious, disorder. In any case, Said Critic has done his best to infect others with his bile. And then the miracle. Moscow's Et Cetera Theater mounted a full-blown production of Mel Brooks' "The Producers," and Mr. Critic was seen not only leaning forward in his seat and not only smiling — he was actually seen laughing. Repeatedly.

Now, if anyone can make a sweet tart out of a sourpuss, it is Mel Brooks. He is the screenwriter and director who turned racism and flatulence into the stuff of epic comedy ("Blazing Saddles") just as he hilariously transformed speech impediments and physical deformity into steamy sexuality ("Young Frankenstein"). But it was his first major motion picture, "The Producers," that surely was his most brazen.

Is there any single social group that is not ridiculed in this absolutely manic musical? The story about a duo of two-bit producers mounting a guaranteed flop on Broadway in order to abscond with the investors' money is potentially offensive to any and all.

The two Jewish producers elect to stage a disgruntled Nazi's play called "Springtime for Hitler," and, in order to convince the author to sign over his rights, parade around with swastikas on their arms and sing Nazi songs with him. To ensure that this horrid play fails without fail, the producers hire a flamboyantly gay director who lacks talent but shamelessly will do anything if he is promised success. Women — not only in the guise of Ulla, the producers' secretary who requires sex every morning at 11, but also in the guise of scantily clad dancing choruses — are objectified with glee. At least in the Russian version, which was created by translator-playwright Irina Lychagina and lyricist Alexei Kortnev, there are cripple jokes, ethnic jokes, political jokes, and we are only just getting started.

One of the biggest laughs on opening night came during a police raid of the producers' office. The terrified director of "Springtime for Hitler" hides in the bathroom then emerges to declare that someone was trying to "waste us in the outhouse," a bull's-eye reference to Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's famous promise to deal with Chechen separatists.

"The Producers" is so over the top, so insanely irreverent that it will make even a sorry-faced old critic double over in laughter.

Director Dmitry Belov did a fine job of keeping this huge show running at a breakneck speed. His command of timing and pacing is particularly evident in the big scenes, which are built on the brief but explosive interaction of many different players. The precise, energetic dances choreographed by Zhanna Shmakova are a constant store of energy that underpin the entire work. Olga Shagalina provided considerable eye candy in the detailed and colorful costumes as well as the set design of an apartment interior, a theater facade and a prison cell.

As the producers Max Bialystock and Leo Bloom, Maksim Leonidov and Yegor Druzhinin, respectively, make a touching pair of misfits around whom everything else is structured. But it is the cavalcade of hard-core satirical portraits that really revs this production up.

Natalya Blagikh is genre-perfect as the undulating, eyelash-batting sex bomb Ulla. Alexei Chernykh employs two parts Mick Jagger and two parts Boy George to create his hip-grinding interpretation of Roger de Bris, the pink-dress and boa-sporting director.

Perhaps the funniest of them all is Roman Kirillov as Franz Liebkind, the sympathetically pathetic Nazi playwright, with whom Sigmund Freud clearly would have had a field day. This human knot of frustration and aggression is downright huggable.

Critics are critics, however, and they must take their pound of flesh. Brooks' music is unapologetically forgettable with the single exception of the theme song, "Springtime for Hitler."

Ay, but there's the crux: Who gives a damn? Most of the time you'll be laughing so hard you'll never give the faceless music a second thought. Take a critic's word.

"The Producers" (Prodyusery) plays May 27 to 30 at 7 p.m. at the Et Cetera Theater, located at 2 Frolov Pereulok. Metro Turgenevskaya. Tel. 625-2161, 781-7811. www.et-cetera.ru. Running time: 3 hours, 40 minutes.