Fresh Producers

It's not only the big things that Masquerade Theatre gets right in its deliriously entertaining production of Mel Brooks's politically incorrect musical extravaganza The Producers (2001) — it gets all the throwaways right, too. Might this be the best show Masquerade has ever done?

The big things include the impeccable cast; the slick staging (Phillip Duggins); scrumptious choreography that's not only really good, but funny (Laura Gray, Michelle Macicek, William Martin); impressionistic settings (Amy R. Ross); witty costumes (Libby Evans, Colton Berry, Allison Sumrall); musical bounce (conductor Rick Spitz); and an infectious mood that heartily welcomes us. When everything clicks, as it does spectacularly here, no other company in town has as much fun putting on a show.

And what a show to put on! Funnyman Mel Brooks's "new musical" was his own adaptation of his cheesy, hilarious cult movie from 1968, with help on the book from Tony winner Thomas Meehan (Annie, Hairspray). Low-rent producer Max Bialystock and low-self-esteem accountant Leo Bloom concoct a scheme to produce the worst flop on Broadway. As soon as the show closes, they'll abscond with all the leftover dough. They find a Nazi musical tribute Springtime for Hitler: A Gay Romp with Eva and Adolf at Berchtesgaden, and then hire the worst director on Broadway, Roger De Bris, who brings with him his backstage assortment of fruits and nuts.

Meanwhile, Max (John Gremillion) woos old ladies who invest in the show for a quickie. And success for nebbish Leo means being pawed over by luscious chorus girls, who do just that after emerging from beneath office desks in his fantasy anthem "I Wanna Be a Producer." In top hat and cane he struts his stuff and jacks up enough courage to quit his job, taking his blankie with him, to become partners with Max. As wondrously played by Michael J. Ross, whiny, meek Leo is so stiff his shoulders hunch up toward the rafters. Ross is the only performer I know of who can tap dance in character and still look smooth.

Here are some of the little things this production gets right, all beauties. Sexpot secretary Ulla (Laura Gray) bends over to retrieve a pencil like a living Vargas girl; manic gay director Roger De Bris (Luke Wrobel) curls up at the footlights ready to croon like Garland; the rooftop pigeons of Hitler-loving Franz (Even Tessier) wear Nazi armbands and salute in rhythm to his little Bavarian ditty; the very butch lighting designer Shirley (Allison Sumrall), in flannel shirt and work boots, faints at the sight of ultra-fem Ulla; the phalanx of biddies in the courtroom reach out to feel up their beloved Max; and sad-sack Leo wraps his coat around his head as if it's his favorite blankie.

Brooks's musical won an unprecedented 12 Tony awards, ran for six years and commandeered a top price of $480, another first. The show, a tribute of sorts, glows with a love of old musicals. Throughout, there are fleeting send-ups of Fiddler and Ethel Merman, hoary burlesque, cheap T&A jokes, and Busby Berkeley chorus lines — only this time, it's sexed-up biddies with walkers. Absolutely brilliant. Gays are embraced, getting made fun of like blonds, Nazis and blind beggars. Everyone's in on the joke. It's made for silliness. And you will laugh, I guarantee it — there's no way not to.

Much of the movie's fame rests squarely with idiosyncratic Zero Mostel as sweaty Max Bialystock, who practically bursts through the screen. On Broadway, Nathan Lane steered Max into softer territory. Frantic, yes, but he's a nice guy. Gremillion brings class to the role, and sex appeal. The queasy factor's still there — Max shtups those old ladies for their money, remember — but Gremillion's such a charmer, he easily lightens the mood. Everyone's got a big number, and Max has "Betrayed," a Rodgers & Hammerstein parody, in which he recaps the show we've seen so far — including the intermission — in breathless style. Everybody gets the spotlight at some point; that's how cleverly designed The Producers is. (One mistake, though: In a fit of pique, Leo insults Max by calling him, "Fat, fat, fatty." The joke falls flat because one thing Gremillion is not, is fat.)

As wimpy Leo with his impossible dream, Ross is irresistible. Constantly frazzled at how low Max can drag him, he gets a laugh just by wearing an Indian headdress. He's a real song-and-dance man, and his numbers with Ulla and his bromance song with Max, "Till Him," nail his character with deadpan sweetness. Laura Gray, as hot-to-trot Swedish bombshell Ulla, lights up the stage. She should consider a name change — Gray's much too drab. How about Incandescent, or plain Va Va Voom? Luke Wrobel, as gay-as-the-queen-of the-May Roger, is deviously insane, devouring the scenery as if it were made of Godiva chocolate. In gown and opera gloves, swishing madly, he is yummy.

The whole shebang is yummy, start to finish. If you're a sucker for musicals, go. If you're a sucker for inspired theater and unstoppable laughter, go.

KEEP THE HOUSTON PRESS FREE... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
D.L. Groover has contributed to countless reputable publications including the Houston Press since 2003. His theater criticism has earned him a national award from the Association of Alternative Newsmedia (AAN) as well as three statewide Lone Star Press Awards for the same. He's co-author of the irreverent appreciation, Skeletons from the Opera Closet (St. Martin's Press), now in its fourth printing.
Contact: D. L. Groover