“Producer” Perfection From Masquerade

What a spot to be in: a critic with nothing to complain about! I’ll do the best I can as I continue basking in the glow of Masquerade Theatre’s latest gem, Mel Brooks’ The Producers. Adapted from Brooks’ 1968 film of the same name, and directed here with superb skill by Phillip Duggins, this show is a not-to-be-missed classic. From the first dazzling number, “It’s Opening Night,” the show creates more visual excitement with cleverly minimal sets (Amy R. Ross) than anything I can remember. The dancing (choreography: Laura Gray, Michelle Macicek & William Martin), lighting (David Gipson), musical direction (Michael J. Ross), and beautiful costumes (Libby Evans), all combine to make this a polished jewel of the highest order.

The show’s witty book (Mr. Brooks & Thomas Meehan) could easily fall flat in the wrong hands. No danger of that here. The comic timing from these actors is as wonderful as the glorious ensemble singing from the cast. The concept is a pip as well. Max Bialistock (talented John Gremillion looking a bit like a young Bert Parks) is a failing producer who has seen his better days while seducing little old ladies as investors. To fudge his books during this crisis, he hires Leo Bloom (Michael J. Ross), a bumbling, nervous wreck of an accountant. To Max’ delight, Bloom proffers the idea that if an over-capitalized show could be guaranteed to fail on opening night, the producers might be able to abscond with the investors’ money. As the two collaborate on this scheme, the musical comedy fun is non-stop. The show’s glamorous opener depicts Max’ latest flop on Opening Night as a cast of “First Nighters” and a terrific quartet of “usherettes” build the excitement. Max and the powerful ensemble cast add to the glow with a well crafted, “King of Old Broadway,” that is a sharp take-off of “Fiddler on the Roof,” fiddler and all. But the first “thumbs-down” reviews are in. As Max observes, “The reviews come in a lot faster when the critics leave at intermission.”

John Gremillion (left) as Max Bialystock, and Michael J. Ross as Leo Bloom

Now the character of Bloom is supposed to be extremely timid, and at first I thought Ross was going to be a problem as he moved about the stage stiffly, speaking in barely audible whispers. I quickly learned my fears were unfounded as Ross exploded hilariously in the famous “I’m Hysterical” scene. He and Gremillion are perfectly matched in the abundant nutty comedy that follows. And for feminine comic relief, we have Laura Gray as the very sexy (and she knows it), Ulla Inga. A voluptuous Swedish bombshell with limited English, Ulla is so irresistible that Max hires her on the spot as both an actress in his new show and receptionist in his office. As mentioned earlier, Gray is one of the secrets of ever-improving choreography at Masquerade. Add to that her flair for comic timing and you have a really winning performance here. Just wait until you see her, “When You’ve Got It, Flaunt It.” Believe me, she’s got it!

As for Max’ new show, that is carefully planned to be a bomb! Screening for the worst play possible, Max and Bloom select “Springtime for Hitler,” by would-be playwright, Franz Liebkind (Evan Tessier). Tessier’s uproarious performance in the role of this Nazi-loving lunatic is nothing short of hilarious. Even the animated pigeons he keeps on his apartment house rooftop have individual Nazi armbands. They sing along as Franz delivers the very comical, “In Old Bavaria,” and then compels Leo and Max to join in the deliciously absurd dance, “Der Guten Tag Hop-Clop.” Next it is on to selection of the worst possible director, in this case—the very gay Roger Debris. (Luke Wrobel) and his even gayer houseboy, Carmen Ghia (Luther Chakurian brings mincing to a whole new level). Along with Roger’s equally gay team of assistants and an assortment of over-the-top costumes, this crew of crazies forms a highlight of the show.

With both music and lyrics from the delightful wit of Mr. Brooks, delightful songs abound. There is the frantic, “We Can Do It” from Max and Leo as they form their plan in a commanding duet. There is the knockout, “I Wanna Be A Producer,” fantasy from Leo and the talented Rockette-style chorus girls (dressed in glittering gold), as an office full of bored accountants add a hint of Jewish flavor by repeatedly chanting the word “unhappy.” The Act One fun culminates in a dazzling, “Along Came Bialy.” Surrounded by the rousing full ensemble, and with his Little Old Ladies tap dancing cleverly on their walkers, Max literally owns the stage in this smashing number.

Act Two opens with the sweet courtship dance of “That Face” from Leo and Ulla, and then it is on to the all-important auditions to select the show’s Hitler. Comical candidates include Jack (Adam Delka) and Jason (Jay Tribble). But the audition winner is none other than the play’s author, Franz. But bad luck follows when Franz breaks his leg before the opening night curtain, and director, Roger, must play the part himself. Mr. Wrobel’s fine singing and zany performance steal the show during the sensational “Springtime for Hitler” number. Critics rave, but Opening Night success means ruin for Leo and Max who must now reimburse the investors they have swindled. For details of their jail time and sweet ultimate redemption, hurry on down to The Masquerade. Addressing the audience before the show, director Duggins had commented, “We are all having so much fun. And knock on wood, so far the critics have as well.” You can add my name to that list.

The Producers will be performed Friday, July 31st, 8:00pm, Saturday, August 1st, 8:00pm, and Sunday, August 2nd, 2:00pm in the Zilkah Hall of Houston’s Hobby Center. For tickets and information call 713-861-7045 or visit the website at www.masqueradetheatre.com.

About The People's Critic

David Dow Bentley III, writes columns about the performing arts which are featured in newspapers from the East Coast to the Gulf Coast. A member of the American Theatre Critics Association (ATCA), The International Theatre Critics Association, and America's oldest theatrical club, The Lambs, he also had long service as the editor of The Lambs' Script magazine. Mr. Bentley may be contacted via e-mail at ThePeoplesCritic3@gmail.com.
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