When “The Producers” opened on Broadway in 2001, creator Mel Brooks was asked if it was tasteless to portray a singing and dancing Adolf Hitler.
“Of course!” responded the director of “Blazing Saddles” and “Young Frankenstein.” “But it’s also funny, isn’t it?
“By using the medium of comedy, we can rob Hitler of his posthumous power. If you can laugh, you can cut him down to size.”
And laugh you will at the rousing, no-holds-barred production now playing at the Rivertown Theaters for the Performing Arts, directed by Ricky Graham and featuring the spectacular antics of Sean Patterson and Gary Rucker as Broadway impresario Max Bialystock and his introverted partner-in-crime, Leo Bloom.
Graham’s direction is madcap, reckless, naughty — and completely a hoot.
The iconic characters were first played by Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder in the 1967 movie, followed by Nathan Lane and Mathew Broderick in the Broadway play that won a whopping 12 Tony Awards, crushing the record held by “Hello Dolly.”
As Max, described by Lane as a role that “wasn’t written with a human being in mind,” Patterson’s explosive gusto drives Graham’s breakneck production like an indefatigable human dynamo.
Rucker matches with his own original, high-octane portrayal of neurotic hysteria. His expert business with the Linus-like blue blanket is as witty a moment as you’ll see in quite some time.
Together, these infinitely appealing actors are much more than the sum of their parts.
Like two adept dancers, they perform — giving and taking — with in-sync rapport, getting every laugh possible out of this silly but demanding show.
From dirty old ladies to flaming theater types to blitzkrieging Nazis, no one is safe from Brooks’ scathing satire.
Be it ethnic or sexual humor, his gleeful disrespect somehow escapes the scrutiny of political correctness as only Mel Brooks can.
Having hit bottom, Max recruits Bloom, a lowly accountant sent to audit the books, into a scheme only Bernie Madoff would love: Stage a play so bad it’s destined to flop — and then run off with the excess finances raised by Max’s seduction of a plethora of rich widows.
The perfect choice is “Springtime for Hitler,” a disaster Max assures is “guaranteed to close on page four!”
First, permission must be secured from a crazed Nazi author. “Not many people know this, but the Führer was a terrific dancer,” confides Franz Leibkind, played by Allan Payne, also musical director.
Payne’s zany, robust performance is a scream. “Hitler … there was a painter! He could paint an entire apartment in ONE afternoon! TWO coats!”
Next, enlist the worst director in town, the über-flamboyant Roger DeBris (Kevin Murphy) whose motto, no matter what, is “Keep it light! Keep it bright! Keep it GAY!”
As Ulla, the red-hot secretary/leading lady Caroline Cuseo — sexy, free and adorably present — shines.
“Don’t be shy, be bold and cute, show the boys your birthday suit” sings Ulla, much to the delight of Leo and Max in the knock-out number “If You’ve Got It Flaunt It!”
“Even though we’re sitting down,” responds Max, “we’re giving you a standing ovation.”
The sheer amount of talent exhibited by Graham’s high-wattage, 30-plus cast blows away any peripheral shlock, more than making up for some clowning that panders a bit too obviously for audience reaction.
The big dance numbers — choreographed by Kelly Fouchi, Karen Hebert and Cuseo — are spirited, imaginative and tight. The chorus line of old ladies with walkers is a sidesplitting sight you will not forget soon.
If you want to loosen up, let go and have a blast — or, better yet, know someone who needs to — “The Producers” is a must-see.
Bruce Burgun is a retired professor of theater from Indiana University and a member of the American Theatre Critics Association.