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Kavinoky's 'The Producers' is an energetic start to the theater season

There isn’t a more perfect show to kick off a theater season than “The Producers.” It’s got showgirls and chorus boys, kick lines and cartwheels—it’s got sexy grandmas and prancing Nazis. What more do you need?

After the riotous opening night performance at the Kavinoky Theatre, you might have needed a sedative. Three hours of exhausting laughter never felt so good. Where this company and crew gets the stamina to barrel through this nonstop production is anyone’s guess. I’ll have what they’re having.

“The Producers” is based on the 1967 Mel Brooks film that marked his directorial debut and won him an Academy Award for Best Screenplay. It is his lipstick-smeared love letter to Broadway, and a devilish satire of a crooked show business. This 2001 musical adaptation, written by Brooks and book writer Thomas Meehan, expands breathlessly on what was originally a quiet, nuanced parody. This version is the brassy, bawdy, show-stopping musical it probably always wanted to be.

In Kavinoky’s production, we see the show in a sort of third act, some 16 years after its rebirth. This much was unexpected: If you saw the original Broadway production, or the tour that came through Shea’s (but hopefully not the lifeless 2005 musical film adaptation), you might remember how shocking some of its humor was. But times have changed. Brooks’s misogyny is a little less innocent now, and his panache for Nazi humor might wince some eyes. But Brooks never strove for political commentary, only fearless entertainment. This is still the best way to enjoy this show.

Leading this production is Buffalo native Lynne Kurdziel Formato, the kind of director-choreographer who understands original director-choreographer Susan Stroman’s holistic approach to musical staging. She borrows quite a bit from Stroman, as the show practically warrants, but executes it flawlessly with an energetic and tireless cast. It’s a pleasure seeing her work on a local stage once again.

Brian Mysliwy, right, and Norm Sham are great in the lead roles of Kavinoky Theatre's "The Producers." (Sharon Cantillon/Buffalo News)

There’s much credit to go around this company, starting with our two leading men, Norm Sham and Brian Mysliwy. Each brings an original take on these classic roles.

As the conniving impresario Max Bialystock, Sham is a smooth cucumber, ever the legend. Thankfully, Sham does not channel Zero Mostel’s original performance, a fruitless endeavor that even Nathan Lane avoided doing on stage. He does not quite reach Max’s comedic potential, and is only occasionally self-aware enough—not enough wink and nod in his punch lines. But he delivers with great stamina and persistence. I suspect he will ease into the cushiony role before long.

As his novice accomplice Leo Bloom, Mysliwy is a jawbreaker out the gate. Mysliwy is a swirl of nerves, fears and passions—both tightly wound and yet fancifully free. He takes Gene Wilder’s bridled anxiety and Matthew Brodrick's seething tension, and turns them both up to 11. A truly live performance.

Charmagne Chi and Norm Sham are part of the hard-working ensemble in the Kavinoky Theatre's "The Production." (Sharon Cantillon/Buffalo News)

A hardworking ensemble keeps the ship moving. Todd Benzin breaks out his dancing shoes as the silliest Nazi ever, Franz Liebkind. Greg Gjurich lives his best life as the flamboyant Roger DeBris; Marc Sacco is his peculiar assistant, Carmen Ghia. Arianne Davidow takes us to Sweden as the leggy, flexible Ulla. And in a combination of bit parts, Charmagne Chi delivers consistent laughs.

The show is huge and understandably difficult to scale down without losing valuable veneer. It moves with cinematic pace but old-fashioned inefficiency, yet Kurdziel Formato’s scene changes are applause-worthy. Designer David King’s sets don’t move so fluidly, though these kinks will surely be remedied. King’s work is mechanically brilliant, and his property design is innovative, though they are aesthetically drab. Mark Vona’s musical direction is swift, though with a small, seven-piece orchestra, we feel the gaps in Brooks’s romance.

It’s hard to ignore these flaws in a show about stage magic and plentiful budgets. But it’s not enough to sideline an energetic company, thoughtful direction, and impeccable material that half a century later still works.

Theater Review

"The Producers"

3.5 stars (out of 4)

Through Oct. 1 at the Kavinoky Theatre (320 Porter Ave.). Performances are at 7:30 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays, 3:30 and 7:30 p.m. Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays. Tickets are $42 general and $38 for senior citizens. Info: 829-7668,

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