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Annapolis Summer Garden soars with rousing 'Producers'

For The Baltimore Sun

Annapolis Summer Garden Theatre is capping its 50th anniversary season with Mel Brooks' comedy "The Producers," a show that won a record 12 Tony Awards in 2012.

Worthy of several awards of its own after a midseason triumph wit the recent production of "Rent," Summer Garden leaves audiences in gales of laughter with "The Producers."

I enjoyed the Broadway production twice — one starring Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick — and this Summer Garden production is a worthy successor. The show retains enough political incorrectness and offbeat plot to remain a standard of outrageous humor.

The story details the exploits of a down-on-his-luck Broadway producer and his mild-mannered accountant and partner who scheme to produce a notorious flop on Broadway — a plan designed to bilk their backers out of millions.

The duo, Max Bialystock and Leo Bloom, find their flop in the absurd show "Springtime for Hitler" — which somehow becomes a smash hit.

Summer Garden's production has everything going for it, starting with brilliant direction by Jerry Vess, who brings nonstop hilarity to Brooks' musical and distinctive life to each character. Vess has expert assistance from Anita O'Connor's musical direction.

Together they have a dream cast to showcase, led by veteran Baltimore actor B. Thomas Rinaldi in his Summer Garden debut as Max Bialystock. Rinaldi's portrayal is uncannily reminiscent of Lane's Broadway performance.

Yet he brings his own talents to animate this larger-than-life role with energy and comedic timing, as well as notable vocal skill.

Rinaldi also has natural rapport with partner Nathan Bowen, who gives the Leo Bloom role neurotic innocence, timidity and near-paralyzing caution.

Bowen notes in the program that he "trains by day as a budget analyst" to portray the cautious accountant Bloom, who finds himself confronting Bialystock's mysterious bookkeeping,

Bowen rises to new comic heights in an office meltdown scene, delivers superb vocal renditions of "I Wanna Be a Producer" and "That Face," and also shows off superb dance skills in solo, duet and ensemble work.

As sexy Swedish auditioning showgirl Ulla, Erica Miller makes a memorable Summer Garden debut, delivering strong dance and singing skills — especially in the number "When You've Got It, Flaunt It." Miller also conveys impressive comedic talent enhanced by an amusing Swedish accent.

Miller's Ulla has warm rapport with Bowen's Bloom, as expressed in "That Face," and later in her smooth execution of the complex "Springtime for Hitler" dance choreography.

Adding sparkle are several actors in demanding roles, starting with Hitler fan Franz Liebkind fully realized by Josh Mooney. Mooney is peerless in lederhosen and helmet, singing the praises of Old Bavaria for this anticipated flop.

Producers Bialystock and Bloom must persuade Roger DeBris, the only director unskilled enough to bring "Springtime for Hitler" to the stage, to take on this major task. Pete Thompson is ideally cast as DeBris, bringing high voltage vitality and glitter to the role. His apartment houses a spectacular colony of artists, starting with DeBris' assistant, Carmen Ghia, well played by Kevin James Logan in a noteworthy Summer Garden debut.

We're also introduced to Roger's team — Jason Beall, Andrew Gordon, Adam Timko and Stephanie Bernholz — who "Keep It Gay" with infectious zest. Always a standout, incredible dancer Gordon adds delectable flair to the group.

"The Producers" boasts a skilled production team that includes choreographer Emily Frank, whose work celebrates classic Broadway dance from tap to romantic ballroom numbers.

Costume design is by Jocelyn Odell, who creates glamorous attire for the dancing chorus and appropriately homespun wardrobe, complete with pretzel-and-sausage headdresses, for "frauleins."

Helping to move action along swiftly is the clever set designed by Peter Kaiser that smoothly transitions from outdoor building facades to indoor spaces. Sets are enhanced by Matt Tillett's striking lighting design.

Continuing weekends through Sept. 4, Annapolis Summer Garden Theatre's production of "The Producers" has many sold-out performances, making early ordering of tickets advisable. For details, call the box office at 410-268-9212 or online at summergarden.com. The theater is located at 143 Compromise St., Annapolis.

Tickets to the final event in the Summer Garden golden anniversary celebration, "50 Years Under the Stars," featuring local stars on stage and in video remembrances, can be purchased at $25 at summergarden.com.

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