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Theater review: 'The Producers' could have been a big mess

Posted 8:20am on Tuesday, Sep. 04, 2012

DALLAS -- The difficulty of The Producers is that it's about two men scheming to put the worst show on Broadway with an awful cast so they can scram with the investment money; and yet the audience has to be convinced that such badness is possible through an ace cast of actors, singers and dancers, down to the smallest ensemble role.

You could argue that this describes every big song-and-dance musical, of course, and you'd be right. One of the problems with productions of these ginormous shows, from the professional houses to community theaters, is that not enough care is taken with the chorus roles, making the cliché "you're only as good as your weakest link" ring true. Local theaters, including Uptown Players, have not been immune to this dilemma.

But Uptown avoids it this time with the first local professional production of The Producers since the Broadway tours hit Fort Worth and Dallas in the mid-2000s. It also demonstrates why the musical is not staged very often: It's a mammoth undertaking.

Never fear. Director Michael Serrecchia, his co-choreographer Megan Kelly-Bates and music director Scott A. Eckert respond with "We got this." And they do. This is easily the best musical production Uptown has managed yet; and of the large-cast, big-set, innumerable props-required musicals, it's the best you're likely to see for a while, even from theaters with larger budgets.

Mel Brooks wrote the music and lyrics based on his 1968 movie, and co-wrote the book with Thomas Meehan. In 2001, it won every Tony imaginable.

In casting this production, Uptown went with Fort Worth's B.J. Cleveland as hack producer Max Bialystock. That is a no-brainer, considering he fits into many roles previously done by Nathan Lane, who was Max on Broadway and in the 2005 film version. But Cleveland doesn't merely ham his way through this. There are moments when you see a person underneath all that money- and women-grubbing.

As accountant-turned-Max-cohort Leo Bloom, Brian Hathaway starts off too over-the-top, but he eventually settles into Leo's neuroses. You have to eventually believe that Max and Leo are like any old-time comedy duo because they play off each other effortlessly. Check.

There are also top-notch performances from Whitney Hennen as bombshell assistant/aspiring actress Ulla; Tony Martin as Franz, the German who wrote the awful script Max and Leo find, Springtime for Hitler; and Peter DiCesare as the hissing gay assistant to the director, Carmen Ghia. Don't forget a chorus that, for once, sounds as good as it dances.

There's another Fort Worth-based actor who comes out on top: The recently returned-to-town Brad Jackson as hack director Roger DeBris. Like Cleveland, Jackson can easily tip over-the-top, and in a role like this, it's a marvel that he stays right at the precipice. His second-act turn as the star of the musical that turns out to be a camp hit is as gut-busting as anything Mel Brooks ever wrote.

With a show this big, it's hard to know how much was rented, but kudos to set designer Rodney Dobbs, costume designer Suzi Cranford and wig/makeup designer Coy Covington for keeping up with the high demands.

A well-done musical about a horrid show that's executed so expertly? Priceless.

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