In the role he may have been born to play, B.J. Cleveland as Max, in an over-the-top, outrageous performance was a crowd roaring, show stopping smash in Uptown Players production of "The Producers," which opened Friday night at the Kalita Humphreys Theater.
B.J. Cleveland, with his large expressive eyes, his masterful double take, his crackerjack comic timing and his ample (but not necessarily needed in this show) voice, pulls off a tour de force performance which should make "The Producers" the hot ticket of late summer.
But "The Producers" is a two-star show and Brian Hathaway, in the less flashy role of Leo Bloom, more than holds his own besides Cleveland. Hathaway’s Bloom is a bouquet of nervous tickets, shrieks and blanket-holding neuroses. Hathaway’s transformation from mousey Bloom to confidant, handsome, ladies’ man is a trick that no amount of CGE effects could produce.
"The Producers the new Mel Brooks musical" (its official title) is based on Brooks’ own classic 1968 film of the same name. That one starred Zero Mostel as Max, a Broadway schmuckster whose Broadway magic has dried up; and Gene Wilder as Leo, an accountant whom Max wins over to his crazy scheme.
When Leo off-handedly declares that, under the right conditions a Broadway producer could make more money with a flop than with a hit, Max has his "Eureka!" moment: Oversell the worst Broadway show ever, and when it closes, they’ll be left with lots of moolah. And what could close a show faster than "Springtime in Hitler," a paean to the genocidal dictator?
Both Cleveland and Hathaway, clearly in their element, elevate the game of everyone involved, which makes the Uptown Players’ production a local hit that will be talked about for years. That’s truly phenomenal for a show requiring the formidable casting of its two lead players, and in which almost everything could go wrong.
Look no further than the original Broadway production for proof. "The Producers" was the buzz of the theater world in 2001. It starred Nathan Lane as Max and Matthew Broderick as Bloom. Lane and Broderick’s manic energy and blissful on-stage marriage catapulted "The Producers" to a then-record 15 Tony nominations (a record that "Billy Elliot" tied a few years later) and a record 12 Tony wins.
What proved that "The Producers" depends on the charisma and schtick of its two leads was proved on Broadway: When Lane and Broderick left the show, the real producers never again found the right chemistry for the two leads, despite a parade of Broadway names. This reviewer caught the Broadway performance with the first replacement cast (Brad Oscar and Steven Weber) and both performers fell flat, as did the rat-a-tat jokes that rolled off the tongue of Lane and Broderick.
In one of those bitch-fests so beloved of show queens, British actor Henry Goodman played the role for only 30 performances before Brad Oscar replaced him. The show held on, to play for six years, however -- a far cry from Max’s own disaster.
’Betrayed’ will have you laughing so hard you may leak.
The touring company, which played the Dallas Music Hall in 2005, also lacked the allure of its stars to deliver a winning show. That’s why this Uptown Production revival is so thrilling.
This "Producers" is so hilarious that you should be warned to either use the facilities at intermission or slip on a pair of Depends because the show-stopping stunner "Springtime in Hitler" and Cleveland’s masterful "Betrayed" will have you laughing so hard you may leak as badly as the old ladies Max woos in the hilarious "Along Came Bialy" number.
Brad M. Jackson is brilliant as the gayest producer on Broadway. Tony Martin is equally as scene stealing as the world’s worst (and most pretentious) playwright. Whitney Hennen grabs your attention and perhaps your libido as the curvaceous blonde secretary.
This is Hennen’s second not-so dumb blonde role in a row at Uptown, following her hilarious Norma Cassidy in last season’s "Victor/Victoria." Ulla doesn’t provide the range that Norma did, but it’s hard to take your eyes off of Hennen when she is on stage.
This is Director Michael Serrecchia’s second musical-comedy smash this summer, after Theatre Too’s "Avenue Q," which received a nearly two-month extended run through September. Serrecchia also served as choreographer. He is adding a new dimension to musical comedy in the Dallas theater scene, which is already filled with an embarrassment of talent.
Dennis Canright’s sets, as usual, are amazing. Here, he used the original Broadway sets as inspiration.
Legendary Mel Brooks wrote the music and lyrics while Brooks and Thomas Meehan wrote the book. The music and songs of "The Producers" has always been its thinnest spot, despite the fun. The only memorable tune is "Springtime for Hitler," which was lifted directly from the film.
Instead of a traditional Broadway score, the songs are lyric-driven. If I had to pick one fault in the Uptown show it would be the inclusion of the overture, which sounds too hollow with such a small orchestra.
Still, hearty congratulations to Executive Producers Craig Lynch and Jeff Rane for assembling this surefire hit. Tickets will be hotter than "Springtime for Hitler." Get yours before the blitz. And while you’re there, say hello to me, because I may well be buying my second or third set of tickets.
"The Producers" runs through September 15 at the Kalita Humphreys Theater, 3636 Turtle Creek Blvd. in Dallas. For info or tickets, call 214-219-2718 or visit www.uptownplayers.org