Two prominent professional theaters in Franklin opened new musical productions last weekend, and results were impressive all-around.
Boiler Room Theatre led off with the first local mounting of Mel Brooks' The Producers. Under Patrick Kramer's smartly paced direction, the company infuses Brooks' irreverently hilarious script with tons of energy and raw talent. Kramer's cast of 20 is chock full of newer faces, including hungry college kids, and his leading players, while somewhat under the radar, are a hugely pleasant surprise handling very demanding roles.
Brooks' over-the-top homage to Golden Age Broadway musicals — based on his 1967 non-musical movie comedy about a couple of schlocky New York producers — certainly plays well on much larger stages than BRT's modest venue affords. Yet it also works well as a sort of chamber musical, with the creator's insistent one-liners and outrageous flirtations with sexism and homosexual and racial stereotypes hitting their mark with perhaps even more immediacy than in 2004, when the national touring company played at TPAC's Jackson Hall.
True, you can't fill the BRT stage with dozens of little old ladies hoofing with their walkers, but this effort still nails all the big numbers, and there's heart in every moment.
The music and lyrics are credited solely to Brooks, and it's no small feat. The mostly upbeat songs are generally very well-crafted and effectively recall Broadway's tuneful '50s and '60s period (before the Sondheim revolution). The best selections range from solid table-setters like "We Can Do It," "I Wanna Be a Producer" and "That Face" to more offbeat (and irrepressibly clever) material such as "Der Guten Tag Hop-Clop," "Keep It Gay" and the show-stopping "Springtime for Hitler" sequence in the play-within-the-play.
The arrangements are classically styled as well, and musical director Jamey Green squeezes a good deal of sophisticated sound out of his seven-piece band. Choreographer Kate Adams' dancers were still a little imprecise, but the ideas, including a fair amount of tap-dancing, are imaginative, serve the action well, and will likely improve throughout the run.
Of course the show would be nowhere without its principal performers. As nutjob producer Max Bialystock, Ryan Leyhue is phenomenal, and his big-guy presence is well-suited to the role. We didn't even mind if he got, as Randy Jackson might put it, a little "pitchy" once in a while. It's an epic performance, capped by his Act 2 delivery of the song "Betrayed," possibly the most self-absorbed theatrical solo since the musical Gypsy's "Rose's Turn."
Equally entertaining and even more comically charming is Tyler Evick as Max's hyper-nervous accountant-turned-sidekick Leo Bloom. He's well matched with the show's love interest, blond Swedish babe Ulla, played by Catherine Birdsong, a Belmont University grad who's found some success in Los Angeles in TV and commercials but has recently resumed performing and teaching in Music City. Birdsong's acting is a delight, and she renders her signature song, "When You've Got It, Flaunt It," with sufficient power.
The three main supporting roles are played superbly by Andy Riggs (as Nazi playwright Franz Liebkind), Chad Webb (as super-flaming director Roger DeBris) and Chase Miller, who is especially expressive as DeBris' mincing assistant, Carmen Ghia.
With less resources than maybe other companies, BRT proves that complex challenges can be overcome with grit, good casting and a creative directorial hand.
Meanwhile, Studio Tenn's impressive take on Stephen Sondheim's Into the Woods reaps the benefits of direcor Matt Logan's gorgeous fairy-tale set and costume design, some engaging hologram special effects, a cast of 16 that includes some of Middle Tennessee's most familiar names, and musical director Bryan Louiselle's potent nine-piece orchestra doing high justice to the master composer's unified multilayered score.
Again, casting is key, and Sondheim's Brothers Grimm characters — Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, the Wolf, the Witch, etc. — are smartly portrayed by Kayce Cummings, Joey Barreiro, Brent Maddox, Kim Bretton, Marissa Rosen and others. Standing out in the crowd are perennially gifted actor-singers Patrick Waller, Nan Gurley and especially Matthew Carlton, who accepts the unlikely role of (beanstalk) Jack's mother and creates a gratifyingly fresh characterization.
The production seems a tad longer than other recent local mountings, running perilously close to the three-hour mark. True Sondheim buffs probably won't find that a trial, though.