Of shows and showmanship with the Asolo Rep’s Barnum and Venice Theatre’s The Producers.
By Kay Kipling
Everybody loves a big, splashy, fast-paced Broadway show, right? One with lots of showgirls, easy humor, colorful costumes and clever choreography? What more could one want?
Well, that’s the question with two current local productions. One is Venice Theatre’s The Producers, a big show for the community theater and a first for a Florida company. The other is the Asolo Rep’s kickoff to its 50th season, Barnum, starring Brad Oscar (who, interestingly enough, was in the Broadway cast of The Producers.)
First, the positives. The Producers remains a great deal of fun in its story of mad Max and nebbishy Leo (Daniel Greene and Charles McKenzie), who team up to deliberately produce the worst play ever in order to reap a windfall in a tax loss. Considering the size of the cast, the physical demands on the performers and the need for swift scene changes and a ton of often ornate costumes, Venice Theatre manages quite a feat of staging.
Charles McKenzie and Heather Kopp in Venice Theatre’s The Producers.
The big production numbers, especially the Act I finale involving all the little old ladies with their walkers and Act II’s famous Springtime for Hitler sequence, are impressively handled (by choreographer Brad Wages). Heather Kopp, who’s grown a lot over the past few years in her confidence and abilities, is a fine Ulla, and McKenzie a likable Leo. One might wish for more flamboyance and looseness from Greene as Max, but basically he gets the job done. And costume designer Nicholas Hartman as campily gay director Roger DeBris and Scott Vitale as his assistant, Carmen Ghia, are right on the money, especially in the number Keep It Gay.
So what’s to criticize? Not much, really. It’s just that all the required attention to the myriad of production details means something at the heart of the show—the crucial relationship between Max and Leo—gets overlooked. We never really feel these two opposites bonding, so we’re missing that emotional connection, especially in the courtroom scene near the end. The fun is there, but not the feeling.
There’s something of the same story with the Asolo’s Barnum, a big, bright, relentlessly enthusiastic show with a hard-working cast and strong production values. Everything is there: the grand opening number (There’s a Sucker Born Every Minute) that sets up the premise of the show with P.T. Barnum’s brand of “humbug”; the stilt-walking, plate-spinning, juggling, tightrope walking and more from a skilled, well-drilled cadre of performers; the sheer spectacle of nearly 50 years of American history compressed into two hours. Once again, the choreographer (Joshua Rhodes) and the director (Gordon Greenberg) have done an amazing job of staging the show’s numbers, especially in Act II’s Come Follow the Band drum tag and the irresistible Join the Circus sequence that sums up the play’s spirit.
Brad Oscar and cast members in the Asolo Rep’s Barnum.
Plus, Barnum benefits from the endearing appeal of Nathaniel Braga as Tom Thumb and the fine voice and pretty looks of Renee Brna as Swedish nightingale Jenny Lind. Brad Oscar certainly presents the outer brio and bluster of Barnum, with Misty Cotton as his more practical wife, Charity, providing the necessary foil.
But—and this is a big but—behind all the hoopla, there’s no heart to the show. The characters are uniformly one-dimensional, the supposedly lifelong devotion between the Barnums unconvincingly rendered. This seems to be inherent in the show itself, and it’s not certain what a director might try to do to overcome that flaw. Granted, the man Barnum was probably not one given to introspection or reflection; perhaps in reality, what you saw was what you got. But in the end, while dazzled by all the circus splendor, you walk away from Barnum feeling rather empty—dare we say, humbugged?
The Producers continues at Venice Theatre through Dec. 7; call 488-1115 or go to venicestage.com for tickets. Barnum runs at the Asolo Rep through Dec. 20; call 351-8000 or go to asolo.org.