December budget cuts forced Charleston Stage to dump Crazy for You from its 2009 calendar in favor of The Producers, a Broadway smash with a circuitous history — and significantly lower production costs.
Based solely on the evidence from opening night, Charleston Stage should consider such Plan-B options more frequently. This staging of a modern classic of musical comedy was enthusiastically received by its pay-what-you-will preview audience, and the show is buoyed by several standout performances.
None of those performances was better — or more essential to the show's success — than Brian Bogstad's portrayal of failed Broadway producer Max Bialystock. Bialystock is a challenging role for any actor: A sprawling, larger-than-life character who's deeply identified with two of America's greatest comedic actors. The Producers simply won't work without a strong Bialystock.
So any discussion of this musical must begin here, and it's a happy thing to record that Bogstad rose to that challenge convincingly and creatively. Anyone who remembers Zero Mostel's blousy, frantic original will consider Bogstad an odd choice if only for his compact size. Yet it was clear within minutes that Bogstand was confidently in command of both the character and the stage. His Bialystock is neither Mostel's nor Nathan Lane's (though it's certainly closer to Lane's), and that's a good thing.
For anyone who has never seen either the 1968 Mel Brooks film starring Mostel and Gene Wilder, or the Broadway revival starring Lane and Matthew Broderick, or the 2005 film version of the musical, The Producers is a satiric story about two partners who attempt to scam a small fortune by producing the worst musical of all time: Springtime for Hitler: A Gay Romp with Adolph and Eva at Berchtesgaden. The plot requires Bialystock to have sex with every wealthy old woman in New York, and fans of the original film may be surprised to learn how much more explicitly these acts are communicated on stage.
Also standing out are resident actors Michael Lasris as Roger De Bris (the worst director on Broadway) and Sonny Kong as Carmen Ghia, his "common-law assistant." Both roles call for flamboyant gay camp, and both actors deliver it with verve. But Kong, whose run with Charleston Stage hasn't showcased his comedic talent, really steps up, stealing every scene in which he appears with deft physicality.
The other performances are generally fine, but what bears remarking is how odd it feels to attend a Charleston Stage production with a palpable sense of its own naughtiness. Marybeth Clark's direction is solid, and there are numbers that stick in your ear after the final curtain (the tap-dancing octogenarians and their walkers from the "Little Old Lady Land" routine are a scream). That said, the show's low-budget compromises take their toll. "Springtime for Hitler" is the show's best-known production number, and it succeeds by piling kitschy outrage on tasteless offense and then dressing it all in sequins. This version delivered only minimal sight-gags, and wound up falling flat.
But if there's a moment that elevates this production to a higher plane, it's Clark's decision to let Bogstad wander way off script in Bialystock's second-act recap of the performance so far. Mel Brooks has never been shy about breaking the fourth wall, but Bogstad starts talking about the evening's performance directly with the audience, as if he were in it. "I think they're doing pretty well for a bunch of local actors," he says.