UP produces ‘Producers’ and what do they do right? A lot
Kalita Humphreys Theater, 3636 Turtle Creek Blvd. Through Sept. 15.
The Producers could be one of the few shows where the commonly accepted thumbnail description — two men try to put on the worst possible Broadway play and inadvertently wind up with a hit — expressly gives away the ending, but nobody grouses “spoiler alert!” Can you imagine summarizing The Sixth Sense by saying, “It’s about Bruce Willis being dead the entire time and not knowing it.” (If you haven’t seen The Sixth Sense… oops.)
Why? Because, in a way, knowing how it ends — seeing the hilarious comitragedy projected start to finish, knowing all along skeevy producer Max Bialystock (B.J. Cleveland) and nebbish accountant Leo Bloom (Brian Hathaway) will fail — only makes it funnier. And sadder. And anyway, The Producers is about the journey, not the destination.
And what a journey it is, especially in Uptown Players’ local debut of the 11-year-old Tony juggernaut, perhaps the gayest musical ever … and that’s saying a lot.
The stage version — written and composed by Mel Brooks (with help from Thomas Meehan) — is based on Brooks’ 1968 film, but it’s savvier, smarter and, of course, has more music. The signature song, “Springtime for Hitler,” is here, but so are a host of other catchy ear-worms: “I Want to Be a Producer,” “When
You Got It, Flaunt It,” “Along Came Bialy” and “Keep It Gay.”
About that last one: It’s the centerpiece of Act 1, in what easily amounts to one of the funniest scenes ever staged at the Kalita Humphreys Theater. In order to ensure that their show (a musical praising the Third Reich) is a flop, and allowing them to fleece the IRS in the process, Max and Leo hire Broadway’s most incompetent director, Roger DeBris (Brad Jackson), ably aided by his “common-law assistant” Carmen Ghia (Peter DiCesare). And for 20 minutes, the laughs don’t stop.
As Roger fantasizes about how he could “improve” upon World War II (“They’re losing the war? Too downbeat!”) — dressed, incidentally, in a shimmering gown that makes him “look like the Chrysler Building” — he reaches near orgasmic excitement imagining goosestepping Nazis performing a Busby Berkeley routine.
And then in Act 2, that’s just what happens.
The Producers is, even after 40 years, still incredibly inappropriate humor, making light of the Holocaust and all … and funny as hell. It feeds off its inherent offensiveness like a vampire, then delivers it back to the audience ten-fold.
It’s not a small show to produce — nor, as it turns out, an easy one to get right. On opening night, the horns section wailed off-key, and the lighting cues were bungled at first. But when it hit its rhythm… well, let’s just say they did something right.
There’s not a weak performance in the production, which is a showcase for talented comedians. Tony Martin, as the insane Nazi refugee and playwright, has a wide-eyed mania that takes the show’s riskiest character (a Hitler sympathizer) and makes him the comic cherry on this banana split. Martin milks every line for a laugh. DiCesare’s snakelike Carmen and Whitney Hennen’s blonde bombshell Ulla are right on target.
But it’s the triumvirate of Cleveland, Hathaway and Jackson who keep you laughing just at the lingering images of the show a week later. Jackson’s “performance” as Hitler — following a pageant of showgirls bedecked in head-dressed costumes of Germany clichés — seems to last forever. I nearly suffered from hypoxia trying to catch my breath.
Hathaway takes an interesting approach to this Leo, portraying him with the movement and style of a cartoon cat — he’s all slinky moves and exaggerated facial contortions. It’s an ebullient performance.
Cleveland was born to play Bialystock. (As soon as Uptown announced the show, the North Texas theater community assumed his casting by acclamation; it was the least surprising casting announcement of the year.) There’s more mugging in the theater than in Central Park on New Year’s Eve, but always for the greater good. In the penultimate number, where Bialystock recounts the events of leading up to his downfall (including the intermission), Cleveland vamps for two minutes, toying with the audience. It’s the kinda had-to-be-there moment theater was meant for. Just like this entire show.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition August 31, 2012.