Mel Brooks wasn't the first person to do Nazi humor on Broadway. Some 60 years before "Springtime for Hitler" helped propel Brooks and his musical version of his own film The Producers to Broadway fame, two Vaudevillians named Ole Olsen and Chic Johnson pushed the limits of humor by having the Fuhrer give a speech in a Yiddish accent to open their own show on the Great White Way called Hellzapoppin', which now gets a more family-friendly salute courtesy of the NY Goofs, produced by Level Ground Arts at Arlington's Creative Arts Theatre & School.
The original Hellzapoppin' was a Vaudeville-era show, comprised of a variety of acts from clowns to jugglers to mimes and comedians, featuring individual acts and sketches. What distinguished Olsen's and Johnson's show was the level they were willing to take the hijinks. Filled with absurdity, a mixture of blue and black humor, and heavy on slapstick, Hellzapoppin'became a blueprint by which many favorite future comedians and comic writers would sight influence in. The show was even the direct inspiration for the 1960s television program Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In.
In the NY Goofs show, the blue hue is dialed back a little and Olsen and Johnson are replaced by Slappy (Tiffany Riley) and Monday (Dick Monday), character (and married) clowns in the most traditional sense of the word. Joining them in the merrymaking are fellow character clowns including Shawn Patrello as the hobo, Mark Gindick as the nerd, Sarah Hale as the beauty, Mike Williams the magician, Fanny Kerwich the hula hoop artist, plus the little Mondays, Chet and Lily.
The show features, like its namesake, a combination of gags, solo performances and sketches. Among them, Williams, also known as Magic Mike, contributes a few fun magic tricks, Kerwich impreses with hula hoops, Gindick takes a femal audience member on an exciting date at an amusement park and Patrello grapples with anger management issues.
Monday, who also directs the show, clarifies in his notes that this is a tribute to the original Hellzapoppin', not a recreation. And that's an important distinction. It's clear Monday and the group are well aware and well-versed of the great history of variety entertainment in this country. And Hellzapoppin' is easily the paramount expression of that tradition.
So, what NY Goofs have done is deliver a loving, riotous, uproariously funny adaptation of what was at one time the longest running show in Broadway history. It's chock full of laughs, surprises, some fun audience participation, and reverence to that variety tradition.
This is a fun show. A simple assessment yes, but sometimes the simple explanation is the best. Yes, the show is an apt nod to the country's entertainment history, and yes there needs to be more like it. It's something everyone can and should enjoy.
It's circus. It's vaudeville. It's theater. It's fun.
◊ Read our feature on Dick Monday and Tiffany Riley here.