Book: Mel Brooks and Thomas Meehan; Music and Lyrics: Mel Brooks. At: Mercury Theater Chicago, 3745 N. Southport Ave. Tickets: 773-325-1700 or www.mercurytheaterchicago.com; $30-$65. Runs through: June 26
Once again, director L. Walter Stearns shows what a master he is at refitting big and brassy musicals into smaller intimate spaces. Banish now any doubts you may have had about Stearns amazing ability to downsize Mel Brooks' mammoth 2001 Broadway hit The Producers ( inspired by his 1967 film of the same name ) into the cozy Mercury Theater.
While it's well known that a strong story can survive a lot of scenic shrinkage, sometimes something is lost with scaled-back spectacle. That's not the case here, since the Mercury's The Producers constantly lavishes audiences with gleefully infectious fun.
Stearns' production of The Producers appears to be Exhibit A of when a show looks to be just as much fun for the actors to perform as it is for the lucky audiences watching them. There's nary a weak link in the Mercury cast, which abounds scene stealers eager to shine and share as they double up in ensemble roles for the overall good of the show.
First of all, there's Bill Larkin's sarcastically big and aggressive energy as the crooked 1950s Broadway producer Max Bialystock, who longs for a cash windfall to restore his former theatrical glory. Larkin is equally matched by Matt Crowle's meek accountant Leo Bloom, who hits on the odd theory that more money can be made from a flop rather than a hit.
Watching Crowle's limbs flop around like wet noodles is just one of the many delights of the show as his newly emboldened character encounters all sorts of extreme showbiz types. There's Allison Sill's alluringly sexy and funny take on the Swedish bombshell Ulla, while Harter Clingman's Franz Liebkind ( the Bavarian scribe behind the outrageous show-within-a-show called Springtime for Hitler ) is a madcap menace.
Now, The Producers has come in for some criticism in the past for its exaggeratedly stereotypical gay and lesbian characters like the director/choreographer Roger DeBris and his devoted assistant, Carmen Ghia. But as respectively and masterfully played by Jason Richards and Sawyer Smith, the laughable stereotyping actually comes off as a form of upfront confidence and devil-may-care empowerment.
Kudos are also due to Stearns' production team, which expertly engineers the musical's many locations. Scenic designer Jeffrey D. Kmiec's set configurations are finely framed by jutting-out theater marquees, while costume designer Frances Maggio has a field-day with many an over-the-top outfit that draws guffaws at first sight.
The show also moves well with choreographer Brigitte Ditmars providing invaluable dancing and musical staging. Eugene Dizon's off-stage musical direction is also a finely tuned wonder.
Clearly bigger isn't always better, and The Producers at the Mercury Theatre is a prime example of this. Go now and laugh your head off.