By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
How did Uptown Players prepare for the first local production of the hit Broadway musical The Producers? Step One: They snagged actor B.J. Cleveland to play the leading role of sleazy Broadway showman Max Bialystock. Cleveland is Dallas-Fort Worth's Nathan Lane with one major difference: He actually shows up for every performance.
Step Two: They spent big bucks to rent the scenery, costumes, props and wigs from the lavish, star-studded staging of The Producers that played Los Angeles' Hollywood Bowl in July. The lederhosen worn here by Dallas actor Tony Martin in the role of Führer-worshipping playwright Franz Liebkind were worn there by comedian Dane Cook. For the record, Martin's a much funnier performer than Cook, in or out of leather hot pants.
Step Three: Uptown let director-choreographer Michael Serrecchia tighten up the pace of the show, trimming more than 45 minutes off its usual running time of just more than three hours (and without cutting a single note or line). The result is scads more pizzazz than the tired national tour that limped into Fair Park in 2005. That thing felt so miscast and leaden it could've been one of Max's legendary Broadway flops — Funny Boy, the musical version of Hamlet.
Continues through September 15 at Kalita Humphreys Theater. For tickets, call 214-219-2718.
Step Four: They opened at Kalita Humphreys Theater during a week when everyone needed a laugh. And before you could say Step Five, the audience was falling out of the chairs in hysterics, screaming from the divine agony of gasp-laughing at scene after side-splitting scene.
Uptown's Producers, though not perfect (oy, that squeaking trumpet!), does what Mel Brooks' original 1968 non-musical film starring Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder did to make it a comedy classic. And what the original Broadway musical (with tunes and lyrics by Brooks, who co-wrote with Thomas Meehan) and stars Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick did to earn the show 12 Tony Awards in 2001. It makes people fall in love with its supremely silly characters and then sends the crowd home happy and entertained. Seeing Uptown's all-local cast burn a jillion calories nailing every punch line, dance step, double-take and comic pause is a delight, and a reminder of that old adage: Dying is easy; comedy is hard.
The Mel Brooks style of comedy is especially hard. The Producers on stage and screen — let's ignore the 2005 movie version of the musical, which expressed all the joy of a Botoxed forehead — spins comedy gold from the alchemy of great casting. The show needs actors who bring to their performances more than Brooks has put on the page. Face it: Most of Brooks' jokes are imported from the Catskills circa 1947. A few of them came down with Moses from Mount Sinai.
"Actors are not animals! They're human beings!" says Max Bialystock's nebbishy business partner, Leo Bloom (played at Uptown by Brian Hathaway). "They are?" replies Max. "Have you ever eaten with one?"
It takes skill to make high art out of comedy this low. But Mostel and Wilder, ideal onscreen partners — one oily, rotund and bombastic, the other fuzzy, small and meek — took Brooks' shtick and made magic. Lane and Broderick shared the same dynamic together on the Broadway stage. It's that Jackie Gleason-and-Art Carney thing that places the loud guy in a position of power over the shy one, able to draw his scaredy-cat pal into a crazy scheme that's certain to end in disaster (and cement the friendship in the process).
That's the plot of The Producers. Failed producer Max convinces nervous accountant Leo to help him run a scam. If they can find the worst play ever written, one guaranteed to bomb, they can pocket investors' millions. The script they pull from the slush pile is Springtime for Hitler: A Gay Romp with Adolph and Eva at Berchtesgaden, penned by a pigeon-racing no-talent neo-Nazi (Tony Martin's role) more than willing to play Hitler himself. When Franz breaks his leg on opening night, the show's "make it gay!" director, Roger DeBris (Brad Jackson), steps in. His outrageously campy performance as Der Führer turns the flop into a phenom. Max and Leo suddenly have a hit on their hands. Oops.
With B.J. Cleveland as Max, the rest of Uptown's cast bobs along merrily in his wake. He's ferociously funny, mugging, quaking, jumping, slamming against the furniture and playing off the audience as only the most confident actor can. At the end of the show, his character sings a long, exhaustive recap of the entire plot. When he gets to intermission, he stops, flops onto a bench onstage, flips through a program, chats casually with the crowd and basically milks it for every conceivable laugh till he has the audience begging him to proceed. It's one of the most singularly gutsy and entertaining bits by any actor on any Dallas stage this year.
If only Hathaway were as ideally matched with Cleveland as Wilder was with Mostel and Broderick with Lane. Making his Uptown Players debut (he's worked a lot at Lyric Stage, Theatre Three and Dallas Children's Theater), Hathaway is a fine singer and a capable comic actor. And that's the problem. He comes on in the first act with too much energy, too many rubber-legged pratfalls. Leo needs to start small and, well, bloom, as Max teaches him to live large. Hathaway, better in the second half of the show, doesn't need to try to match Cleveland's exaggerated moves and bumptious rhythms. He could leave himself more room to grow.
Whitney Hennen plays the romantic interest, Swedish secretary/showgirl Ulla. Hennen is a blond bonbon who can belt to the high heavens on "When You Got It, Flaunt It." Brad Jackson's sequin-clad Roger DeBris is every flounce as funny as Christopher Hewitt in the original movie. Playing Roger's "common-law assistant," young Peter DiCesare meets Jackson swish for swish. The showstopper that is Springtime for Hitler, complete with goose-stepping chorines and costumes bedecked with swastikas and bratwurst, has Jackson, in tiny mustache and Nazi garb, singing "Heil Myself" and perching on the edge of the stage like Judy at Carnegie Hall.
With orchestrations for 20 instruments, the score for this Producers sounds anemic played by musical director Scott A. Eckert's eight-piece combo, positioned backstage. On opening night, the horns were amateurishly squeaky and off-key; but often were the only instruments audible from out front. Light cues were a bit wonky, too.
Big snaps to the hardworking chorus kids, though, who jump in and out of costumes as they all play multiple roles, including the walker-tapping army of Max's love-starved little old lady benefactors: Caitlin Darby, Jennie Titiryn, Emily Ford, Kelly McCain, Lisa Ward, Shannon Walsh, Art Kedzierski, Mikey Abrams, Ivan Jasso, Thomas Renner, Ashton Kay Shawver and Jonathan Bragg.
But it's B.J. Cleveland's Bialystock who's the toast of the town this week. In The Producers, he's got it and he flaunts it. Wa wa WAH wa. Does he ever.