Kingston Meistersingers usher in long-awaited musical comedy for Kingston
Mel Brooks’ film The Producers was his 1967 directorial debut. Starring Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder, the story followed fading Broadway producer Max Bialystock (Mostel) as he and accountant-turned-producer Leo Bloom (Wilder) attempted to put on the worst Broadway show of all time. The Broadway musical adaptation of the film, and subsequent movie musical, stars Nathan Lane and Matthew Brodrick, following the same plot. Put on by The Kingston Meistersingers, The Producers recently played at the Octave Theatre for Kingston audiences.
There are lots of things to really like about this production. Overall, the performers are all well-prepared with high energy. The costuming (Liane Penny, Ruth Moore, and Carolyn Barnett) is clean and each character has a distinct look and feel to them. Some especially impressive large scale costume pieces that arrived late in the second act of the show really stole the spotlight. The set design had a classic musical look about it; think city skylines and lived-in mise en scene, which fit the show’s mid-twentieth century setting. The sets are elaborate with each item being used to its fullest extent. As for the performances, everyone onstage is competent in their singing and acting abilities (though in classic Kingston region style, the dancing was something of a sore spot, though not for lack of effort). Everyone was clearly having so much fun, which made it all the more engaging.
This staging has been a long time coming as it was meant to happen in 2019. There have been changes in the director (the final one being Mike Bullet) and a lot of stopping and starting of the process. Now that the show is being staged, everyone involved is thrilled to see it happening—and it shows! I fully believe that everyone involved had a great time on and off the stage.
Knowing about changes in the creative team offers a little extra context to the direction of the show. It did feel like this staging was directly emulating the 2003 movie, most notably in the performances from the lead actors. They were a little too close to impressions of the actors that portrayed their film roles. It’s hard to say who’s decision this was because of the changes in the creative team, but I would have loved to see what the actors brought to these roles rather than their best Matthew Brodrick or Nathan Lane impersonations.
Some things that took me out of the show were small, technical missteps. The set changes were… lengthy. While the set was impressive and complex, it proved to be too much for effective scene changes. My companion clocked one in at almost one minute, 30 seconds. As an audience member, I would have taken a far simpler stage design over the cumbersome transitions.
I’m pleased to report that the band brought a level of spirit to the show that not only matched the energy onstage, but seemed to breathe life into each number. In local theatre, having a live band is a huge asset to acquire. Because of this, I’m more than willing to overlook the occasional missteps in the music (some staggered start times, a few sour notes here and there) because of how passionate the musicians were. A personal favourite part of the show had the band immersed in the onstage action—they were part of the jokes involved in a cringe-worthy audition process. Special mention should be given to percussionist Andy Wi for being a clear leader in the band, and competent to boot.
Something that stood out to me in the director’s note, however, was the mention of how some of the jokes in this satirical play might not be understood or appreciated by a modern audience. This note seemed to come from a fear of audiences seeing the comedy as “out of touch” or “offensive.” This is a fair concern for this production, but it has nothing to do with the writing itself.
Something that might not be coming across in this production is the caricature-esque depictions of certain demographics. The over-the-top, money-hungry, morally-bankrupt, Jewish character of Max Bialystock wouldn’t quite read as satirical if played by a non-Jewish actor, which is what the program note made me think of. If this is the case, this leaves room for criticism of the role because the performance walks the dangerous line of being a stereotype rather than an off-colour joke made with the intention of poking fun at the stereotypes themselves.
What one risks if casting non-queers and non-Jewish people in highly stereotypical roles and telling off-colour jokes, is creating a space in which the the actors are not in on the joke, but rather laughing from the outside.
I would suggest a dramaturg be added to the creative team for future productions that deal with hot-topic themes. Someone who can offer added historical and cultural context to the creation process to help avoid one’s intentions being misconstrued.
It’s clear to me that The Meistersingers have the ability to put on a fun musical comedy! In fact, I’d love to see them put on Mel Brooks’ other musical adaptation, Young Frankenstein as it features a similar cast and comedy style but hinges on fictional characters and myth rather than historical fiction. I have all the confidence in the world that given a smooth pre-production process and some dramaturgy, the next show will wow audiences.
This article was edited on 12/13/2022 to reflect developments noted after the article was posted.