For the last two weeks, costumed, singing Nazis invaded McKenna Theatre.
The SUNY New Paltz Theater Department staged Mel Brooks’ “The Producers” as their spring Mainstage production — and one of the largest in the department’s history — from Friday, April 18 to Sunday, April 28.
Originally a 1968 film, “The Producers” had a six-year run on Broadway starting in 2001 and won a record-breaking 12 Tony Awards. Centered around Max Bialystock — a money-hungry Broadway producer — and Leo Bloom — a fearful accountant with theatrical dreams — the show is based on their joint scheme to make millions off the biggest Broadway flop in history, “Springtime for Hitler.”
New Paltz’s production, which was directed by Theater Arts Department Chair Jack Wade, featured 23 cast members, including Michael O’ Connor as Max Bialystock, Ian Brodsky as Leo Bloom and Brittany Martel as Ulla. Wade was joined by Musical Director Stephen Kitsakos and Choreographer Joe Langworth. Joe Paparone, a faculty member of 43 years, also made his final cameo appearance before retiring.
Having seen the iconic show so many times, Wade said he tried to start with his own “fresh” approach.
“When I’m directing anything, I intentionally try to stay away from the original or any previous production,” Wade said. “In the professional theater, the last thing you want to do is copy somebody else’s work.”
Wade said he allowed the satire in the piece to speak for itself. Although the comedy is directly written into the script, Wade said he likes to let the scenes come to life naturally.
“I like to let my actors go out and I’ll just say ‘Let’s see what you wanna do’ so that I’m working off of their natural impulses,” he said. “Off of that, I’ll begin to carve that out and work on composition on the stage and amplify what they’ve given me very organically.”
The show’s music pays homage to musical theater written in the 1940s and 1950s with what Kitaskos called “big, brassy, bold and beautiful” numbers.
As musical director, Kitsakos wanted the orchestra of 14 professional musicians to be visible during the show. He arranged for the technical director to have the orchestra — the largest one New Paltz has ever featured in a musical — play from a suspended platform hanging above the stage.
“One of the things about live theater is that when you have live music, you want to see the musicians, you don’t want to feel like you’re getting tracks that are just coming out of speakers,” Kitsakos said. “The orchestrations are complex and it requires agility in the voices as well. The two leading characters sing an extensive amount, especially Max, and it really pushes the energy level that’s required.”
Below the suspended orchestra, characters made the most of the stage with leaps, twists and different types of dances. For much of their weekly rehearsals, the cast primarily focused on choreography technicalities of the show and then worked on developing their roles.
“After that’s all put together, watching a run through, you realize you’ve got all of this surface stuff,” Wade said. “Then, underneath that surface, we have to build real people who we can empathize with, so we talk to actors about ‘What are your objectives? What just happened to life that affects you?’”
Despite all the rehearsals and practicing, an unanticipated event changed the course of the production just three days before opening night.
During their first dress rehearsal, O’Connor, a third-year theater and production major, broke his costume heel in the turn table and sprained his ankle. Martel said the cast was worried for O’Connor, who was walking around on crutches the next day.
“Everyone was like ‘Oh my god, what are we going to do?’” Martel said. “When we all had that little moment of panic we were like, ‘What’s gonna happen? Are we going to have to cancel the show?’ We didn’t have an understudy who could go on so what were we to do?”
O’Connor sat in a chair down stage left for the rest of the dress rehearsals and although many adjustments were made in order to interact with him, Wade said the show was still fantastic.
“Because everyone was a little bit worried about [O’Connor], the rest of the cast really started giving more and their characters came up to a different level as well,” Wade said. “When one door closes, another one opens. These kind of tragic things that happen to us during tech week led us into, amazingly enough, a better show.”
O’Connor said he and the choreographer restaged the show over the phone. For extra support they gave him a cane, something he had never used before the show. After the first performance with it, Wade told him he loved the idea of Max using a cane so much that he kept it for the rest of the run.
“It was very scary just knowing that we opened in three days and I could not walk — that freaked me out a lot,” O’Connor said. “I had so much support from everyone on the cast, the professors, the crew and that just helped tremendously.”
Brodsky, a fourth-year music and theater contract major, played one of his dream roles as weak-in-the-knees Leo Bloom.
“I like to think that Leo is one of the most relatable characters because he’s something that’s coming in from the outside and he’s this embodiment of insecurity and discovery,” Brodsky said. “His personality alone is sort of how I grew up. [O’Connor’s sprain] was sort of a happy accident for me because it was that last step I needed to really let go of myself and indulge in the character.”
O’Connor said “The Producers” has been his most exhausting production, but the most fun show he’s ever been in.
“A lot came out of it,” O’Connor said. “When life gives you lemons, make lemonade.”
Brodsky quipped about his costar’s ability to perform despite his injury.
“And he made some sweet lemonade out of that,” Brodsky said.