In a small theater, you're always close to the action.
That can be extra-exciting when the show is a mammoth musical you last saw in some auditorium so vast that your seat seemed to be in a different ZIP Code than the stage.
A handful of local companies have made a specialty of what might be called the less-is-more musical, an enterprise requiring tremendous ingenuity. Two of these groups just opened summer productions: the Chance Theater in Anaheim and the LGBTQ-championing Celebration in Hollywood.
The Chance's "Ragtime" is a roaring success; Celebration's "The Producers" a rare misfire.
Based on E.L. Doctorow's 1975 historical novel, "Ragtime" takes a panoramic look at America early in the 20th century. Industrialism was roaring to new heights, expanding the wealth of the Henry Fords and J.P. Morgans — who appear in the story — and emphasizing their disparity with everyone else.
Set in New York City and its suburbs, the story roams varied social, racial and economic communities as they grapple with issues that remain charged a century later: surging immigration, violence against blacks, women's advancement, labor struggles, sensation-driven news, and political and social activism.
The musical was staged in the mid-1990s on a grand scale: a cast of 48 and orchestra of 28. A revival at Pasadena Playhouse earlier this year had a cast of 21 and orchestra of 16. The Chance is doing it with a cast of 19 and a band of six.
The larger of the Chance's two theaters, the reconfigurable Cripe Stage, has been set up so the performing area is stretched longways across the room, 62 feet wide and just 23 feet deep. Seating accommodates 99 theatergoers.
As envisioned by Casey Stangl, who recently staged Antaeus' "Diana of Dobson's," the presentation begins like a rehearsal, with the actors gathering in present-day clothes. One appears to activate an app on his phone, which triggers the music and sets the story in motion.
Resources are ingeniously marshaled so that everything looks bigger and more populated than it is. The set (by Christopher Scott Murillo) looks like a factory interior, with giant cogs and sliding metal doors. A pile of wood crates becomes a set of building blocks; stacked just right, a couple of them become, for instance, an upright piano. Most everyone who's not at the center of a scene gets repurposed to fill out crowds. Simple additions of clothing signal that a performer has returned as someone else (costumes by Wendell C. Carmichael).
Emotions surge as the story focuses on the intersecting lives of a wealthy white mother (Rachel Oliveros Catalano) left temporarily in charge of her family; an African American washerwoman (Jennifer Talton) and ragtime piano player (Dony Wright) who become part of the household; and a Latvian Jewish immigrant (Wyn Moreno) with whom the family keeps crossing paths.
The singing of Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens' music — a period-sounding mix of parlor songs, Jewish folk music and, of course, ragtime — is strong; the acting of Terrence McNally's script is riveting.
Even when circumstances are at their bleakest, hopeful citizens try to dream America forward, finding unity in diversity and leaving us with a final image of what the nation could and should be. This is powerfully inspiring stuff.
"The Producers" emerges from an entirely different musical theater impulse: to make audiences laugh themselves silly.
Mel Brooks and Thomas Meehan collaborated on the script for this 2001 adaptation, with Brooks writing more songs — mimicking Jewish folk music and old-time Broadway — to accompany the most memorable ones in his 1967 movie.
Set in 1959, the story focuses on Max Bialystock (Richardson Jones), a Broadway producer with an anti-Midas touch, and Leo Bloom (Christopher Jewell Valentin), a timid accountant hired to sift through the books. Happening upon a bookkeeping discrepancy, Bloom innocently theorizes that a flop could reap bigger, if illicit, profits than could a legitimate hit. Bialystock quickly woos him into a partnership and a search for a sure-fire flop, which they find in the outrageously offensive "Springtime for Hitler." Around them, the monstrous show comes to life.
At Celebration's home in the Lex Theatre, the performing area is an absurdly small 21 feet wide and 17 feet deep. Musicians are housed on a balcony. "The Producers" is performed with a cast of 13 and a band of four. There are seats for just 47 theatergoers.
The story's multiple New York locations all emerge from set designer Stephen Gifford's clever evocation of Bialystock's office, which is hemmed in by tottering towers of metal file cabinets, stuffed to bursting with paper. Drawers open to reveal additional furnishings and, magically, an arm will sometimes reach through to hand a prop to an actor onstage.
To make the cast seem bigger than it is, director Michael Matthews has the chorus guys contribute to the numbers of women needed, lending the production a playful sense of gender-fluidness. What's more, many of the actors have been cast against type, offering them a chance to play roles for which they normally wouldn't be considered. That's all terrific.
But the singing is just adequate, and Janet Roston's typically clever choreography feels, for once, too cramped.
The big problem, though, is that Matthews and his actors have little aptitude for the Brooks style of comedy. Instead of full-body, explosive-emotion gags, we get merely a wide-eyed Bloom and a loud Bialystock, both racing through the funny business (although Jones does deliver some effectively bull-charging Bialystock moments).
In the absence of a convincing alternative style, we are left with a dangerous situation.
Much of "The Producers" is built on the objectification of women (incessant ogling of Ulla the secretary) and stereotypes about gay men (drag-loving director Roger De Bris and his swishy lover) — not to mention the outrageous affronts to the Jewish community that the Jewish Brooks dared to make the root of his humor. This is a story about bad taste, told with bad taste, but what makes it funny is a sense of wry subversion. That's not forthcoming from the usually terrific Matthews (think: last summer's "Cabaret" at Celebration), who musters just a barrage of clichés.
Too bad, because some wry subversion would be welcome right now. America is experiencing an overload of bad taste, coming from all sides. By all means, let's find ways to laugh through it, rather than cry.
Where: Chance Theater, 5522 E. La Palma Ave., Anaheim
When: 7:30 p.m. Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays, 3 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays; ends Aug. 11
Info: (888) 455-4212, ChanceTheater.com
Running time: 2 hours, 45 minutes