One of history’s greatest comedians, Mel Brooks, recently received an honorary Oscar at the 14th Governors Award on Jan. 9, only the second Oscar in his illustrious career following his Best Original Screenplay award for “The Producers.” Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick, the stars of the record-setting stage adaptation of the story, served as presenters and delivered a performance of some of the show’s biggest songs before Brooks took the stage.
Now, Dallas theater lovers will have the chance to hear and see those songs come to life in 2024 thanks to Lyric Stage’s upcoming production of “The Producers,” opening Jan. 11.
“I think the great thing about (“The Producers”) is it’s such an homage and spoof of show business in general, you can’t help but be caught up in it,” BJ Cleveland, who plays Broadway producer Max Bialystock at Lyric Stage, said of the musical comedy. He called it a “tip of the hat to old Broadway and Hollywood musicals” filled with big production numbers and over-the-top characters.
Cleveland is no stranger to the award-winning story of Bialystock’s attempt to produce the biggest flop in showbiz history with the help of his meek accountant partner, Leo Bloom, in order to bilk big bucks out of the show’s financiers. He originally performed as Bialystock 12 years prior to this production for Dallas’ Uptown Players.
“It’s a great role (but) it’s a monster of a show, so revisiting it I’m kind of like, ‘What was I thinking?’” Cleveland said.
He explained that he has two “very difficult” numbers in the show, including a comprehensive song-form recap of the events of the show called “Betrayed” that requires precise execution to keep the timing of the music.
“I drilled into this role so hard 12 years ago that somewhere in that useless information in the back of your mind, it’s stored,” Cleveland said of revisiting the show and its various numbers, explaining that he was “so panicked” about performing “Betrayed” during his first time in the role that the lyrics just started coming back to him one day while preparing for Lyric Stage’s production. “One day, I sang in the shower, and there it was.”
Cleveland credits his past experience performing in “The Producers” with helping him pace himself in the Lyric Stage production and find spots to rest while still reacting to his stage partners, including the show’s Leo Bloom, Brandon Wilhelm.
“I think that we fit together in our styles of how we approach roles, especially in energy,” Wilhelm said.
Wilhelm and Cleveland’s ability to match each other’s energy onstage led Director Brandon Mason to pair them together.
He described how Wilhelm brings a less reserved “bounciness” to his character that’s different from other actors’ interpretation of the role.
It’s a really fun take on it, and I think people are gonna really enjoy (it) because he has this sense to him that he bounces when he gets excited,” Mason said of Wilhelm’s performance.
Likewise, he praised Cleveland for bringing “that enigmatic charm of Nathan Lane, but with a very different vocal range.”
“He just knows how to bust into a room, no matter what room it is,” Mason said of Cleveland.
“The first night of rehearsal, I was actually about to go do a gig as Liza Minnelli, so I came to rehearsal dressed as Liza Minnelli,” Cleveland added with a laugh.
Mason said that Cleveland and Wilhelm came into the production “very studied” and “prepared to work.” He’s been able to let them find their own unique feel for their roles as they work with different scene partners and block out the show.
“I always say that I’m not really like someone who’s going to create the magic. I’m going to curate the magic, so what I do is I see where they’re going and see what they feel, and then we just kind of make sure that it makes sense in the space with the timing and settings that we have,” Mason said.
It all adds up to a show that Cleveland, Wilhelm and Mason hope brings levity and laughs to audiences during a hard time in the world, especially through the use of parody in songs like the famous second-act showstopper, “Springtime for Hitler.”
“We got (difficult) stuff going on in the world right now, so it’s a good time to come have a laugh, and that’s what it is. It’s a two-and-a-half-hour laugh,” Cleveland said of “The Producers.”
The Lyric Stage production of “The Producers” runs from Jan. 11-20 at Moody Performance Hall in Dallas. Lyric Stage notes that “the production is rated PG-13 and contains adult language and mature themes. ‘The Producers’ contains a tongue-in-cheek satire of Adolph Hitler, Lyric Stage is not a supporter of Nazi policies or actions past, present, or future.” For more information about the show, including how to purchase tickets, visit https://www.lyricstage.org/theproducers.
These interviews have been edited for clarity.