The seemingly eternal debate — can “The Producers” be successful without Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick? — continues with the Toronto production of the show. The all-Canuck cast, selected by helmer-choreographer Susan Stroman, is — with a few exceptions — a highly talented bunch who fill their roles as well as any of their Broadway or touring predecessors. The physical production hasn’t cut any corners, with William Ivey Long’s costumes, in particular, proving an endless source of delight. Even the orchestra, led by local veteran Rick Fox, has that winningly brassy Broadway sound. But when you put it all together, it doesn’t totally succeed, with valleys of boredom in between peaks of laughter.
There are, however, some sequences that linger as real keepers in anyone’s “Producers” memory book. Juan Chioran brings a truly sardonic edge to Roger De Bris, the impossibly camp director who enters wearing a dress and somehow winds up as a singing Hitler. Chioran (who appeared on tour and on Broadway as Molina in “Kiss of the Spider Woman”) takes control of the role with a harder edge than is usually applied, and makes his solo turn in the “Springtime for Hitler” sequence the high point of the production.
Michael Therriault, a seven-season veteran of the Stratford Festival, makes an engagingly genuine Leo Bloom. Unlike other actors who obviously feign their insecurity in the early scenes, Therriault goes for total reality. The payoff comes during his big “I Want to Be a Producer” number, as you see this caterpillar turn into a butterfly. He grows in confidence before our very eyes, until he’s hoofing away with the chorus girls for all he’s worth. It’s an added bonus that Therriault is so short. It seems everyone in the show towers over him, especially the Amazonian Ulla of Sarah Cornell.
Cornell, 23, made such an impression on Stroman that she put her into the Broadway cast to follow Cady Huffman until it was time for the Toronto team to start rehearsing. The strategy paid off: Cornell manages to combine her winsome innocence with a nicely crafted sense of how to get the laughs her part requires.
Mention also must be made of Paul O’Sullivan’s Franz Liebkind, with a gleam in his eye and a spring in his step that turns “Have You Ever Heard the German Band?” into a showstopper.
You’ll notice one name missing from this catalog of praise, and that, unfortunately, belongs to the actor playing Max Bialystock: Sean Cullen.
Cullen is best known for the 10 years he spent as frontman for a cult comedy group called Corky & the Juice Pigs. He’s also an idiosyncratic standup whom audiences either love or hate. His followers are loyal, but their numbers have not translated into large ratings for any of his various specials or series on CBC TV.
When it comes to the legitimate theater, however, he has no professional credits whatsoever, and thus seemed an odd choice to headline the show. Max is more than a mere personality part, and Cullen’s admittedly high-energy and outsized antics aren’t enough to fill the bill. It’s a long show and a complex role, and well before it’s over Cullen has exhausted his bag of tricks, as well as his voice.
Also, his years as a standup have made Cullen a solitary performer, and he seldom interacts meaningfully with the people who share a stage with him. This is especially damaging to his relationship with Therriault, as the Max-Leo synergy, when properly launched, is one of the things that can really make the show soar.
When Cullen isn’t at center stage, you still understand why “The Producers” was such a hit. The rest of the time, however, Toronto audiences may find themselves wondering just what all the fuss was about.