By Robert Viencek
When I first came to Salem, Ohio, one of the first families to welcome a "new friend" to town was that of Jesse and Betty Allison and their children.
Over the years the friendships have deepened. Mrs. Betty Allison is one of the patrons at the Salem Community Theatre, and I have been her escort to their diverse and entertaining shows for a number of years. We usually go to matinees.
On Sunday, Aug. 3, we attended the matinee of Mel Brooks musical comedy "The Producers."
The show is based on Brooks' 1967 black and white classic "The Producers" which starred Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder. The show opens with one-time successful Broadway producer Max Bialystock turning out flops that close on opening night. The play titled "Funny Boy" is a musical version of "Hamlet."
The next day Bialystock meets Leopold Bloom, a mousey accountant. In looking at his books, Bloom notes that Bialystock had raised $100,000 but only spent $98,000 to stage the play.
Bialystock begs him to "doctor the books." A little while later, Bloom notes that under the right conditions, a producer could actually make more money with a flop than with a hit. "You could raise millions with your (unknowing) investors by overselling interests in a sure flop. It would be guaranteed to close on opening night."
The two men enter in an agreement and begin a search for the "worst play ever written." And here is where the genius of Mel Brooks shines. He takes one of the darkest periods in the history of mankind with the most evil person to ever live and makes him the focal point of the show. It is an exercise in bad taste that actually works. The show: "Springtime For Hitler and Germany." Brooks, himself a Jew, felt that with humor he was able to destroy someone as vile as Hitler. He was right.
Brooks was approached to write a musical adaptation of his film "The Producers." Originally, he asked Jerry Herman the author of "Hello, Dolly!" and "Mame" to collaborate. Herman encouraged Brooks to write the show himself. He ended up working with Thomas Meehan on it.
The original Broadway production of "The Producers" starred Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick. It opened on April 19, 2001, at the St. James Theatre. The show ran 2,502 performances and won a record breaking 12 Tony Awards.
When I saw the Salem Community Theatre's production of "The Producers" it was like "Old Home Week" for me. Many of the people in the cast and crew were former or current students of mine.
The director for "The Producers" is Tyler Stouffer. I directed him a number of years ago in "Man of La Mancha." He is an amazing young man "exploding" with talent. For audiences who saw SCT's last summer's production of "Hairspray," Tyler Stouffer nailed the role of Edna Turnblad. The female role is traditionally played by a male actor. The Broadway role was created by Harvey Fierstein.
Tyler Stouffer did his homework in preparing to direct "The Producers." He helped guide his actors in turning out believable, loveable, and, at times, crazy and insane performances. Tyler is currently studying at the America Musical and Dramatic Academy in Los Angeles.
This talented young man did not make his journey alone; he has been supported over the years by two exceptional parents. When you see the show, you'll readily recognize Tyler Stouffer walking around the theatre. He is the happy individual literally grinning from ear-to-ear and rightly so.
Congratulations to both Kevin Shield, the musical director, and Joanna Andrei, the show's choreographer. They did an all-around great job in a show crackling with wit and clever songs.
Chuck Peery III is perfect in the role of Max Bialystock. At times I could hear traces of Zero Mostel, Nathan Lane and Mel Brooks in his voice and delivery. He was simply charming as the frustrated has-been producer who longs for just-one-more-hit.
Donny Wolford was wisely cast as the young insecure accountant Leopold Bloom. This young slender "bean-pole" of an actor is reminiscent of Hollywood greats Ray Bolger, Danny Kaye and Donald O'Connor.
When two actors share the stage for the majority of a show (as in "The Producers"), they walk a fine line. It's challenging to learn to share the spotlight and not upstage the other performer. Chuck Peery and Donny Wolford were the "perfect team." They played well together, and both have great voices and can really deliver a song. It's apparent to everyone present that they're having a great time.
The love interest in the show is provided by Kathie Steeb in the role of "Ulla Inga Svaden-Svanson." She is the stereotyped blonde whose voice was up to the humorous song "When You Got It, Flaunt It." The girl knows how to belt a number. The audience loved her.
When Bialystock and Bloom go looking for the author of "Springtime For Hitler," they find another nutty Brooks' creation with Franz Liebkind. The actor Christopher Hager turns in a delightful performance. And again, another good singer was wisely cast in this show.
One of the first people out on stage to shine on stage is Allison Dolphin in the role of one of Bialystock's investors. She is one of the many older sex-crazed women from whom Bialystock cons money. Dolphin, part of the ensemble, is also memorable as a stereotyped lesbian "light designer" for the doomed show.
Bialystock and Bloom's work is far from over. They need to find the perfect "losers" to guarantee their show will meet an untimely demise. David 'El Hatton pulls-out-the-stops as the campy gay director Roger DeBris. He is kept in line by the equally funny character of Carmen Ghia played by Matt Malloy.
The show mocks fun of so much: Hitler, Nazis, homosexuals, stereotypes, crazy characters and over the top caricatures. And the list goes on. Right there, a person who is not familiar with the show might be turned off by it, but instead "The Producers" works because of the genius of Brooks.
With the exception of Hitler and the Nazis, Brooks likes the characters that he has created. And, therefore, we in turn, like them as well.
The SCT cast of "The Producers" is small but diverse. Many actors turn in several performances which is typical of the theatre.
Each of the 21 actors did a great job. The ensemble includes: Niki Slaven, Jordan Pitts, Kaleigh Locketti, Dave Wolford, Jacob Mull, Nathan Kuhns, Devon McGill, Emily Tripodi, Ciara Andrews, Mitch Hendricks, Curtis Myers, Stephanie Blake, Tierra Moore and Jailon Perry.
There were only two drawbacks to the production. One, I felt the set could have been stronger.
The big number "Springtime For Hitler and Germany" needed to be more. The "shimmering glitz curtain" was fun, but chaser lights would have helped. More sight gags were needed to push this production number way over the top. Yes, the audience was laughing, but they needed to laugh even more.
The second note is to Abby Cull, the very talented costume designer. Great job, but again, you needed to go really "wacky" with the "Springtime" number. I loved the "sausage" costume, but I kept remembering all of the strange, funny and offensive costumes from the black and white film. I wanted to see more of those. Abby Cull, you have a bright future ahead of you. Keep up the good work.
If you are an audience member, that is a key role in itself to the entire theatrical experience. For without the audience, there really is very little need for writers, actors, directors, choreographers, etc.
But - and that's a big but - if you have never worked backstage on a production, play or musical, you have no idea what goes on behind the curtain. The workers and their jobs are staggering.
The production crew at the Salem Community Theatre did excellent work in putting this show on.
Special note to another very talented young woman, Bethany Kholos. I worked with her this past year at Salem High School when the drama department staged "Little Women." She turned in a memorable performance in the lead role. But Bethany is wise to know all of the workings of the theatre. She was the assistant director for "The Producers" as well as its Soundtrack Operator. Good work.
Another student of mine who continues to shine is the talented Nicole Slaven. Not only was she in the ensemble for "The Producers," but she was also the stage manager.
Commendations to Scott Sutton for his lighting design and to David Stouffer, the show's light board operator. And the list literally goes on and on.
Shows come and go. There is opening night, and for community theatre, closing night comes far too quickly.
The actors and actresses come and go. The same can be said for the orchestra members and dancers. But the ones that remain "in the wings" are really the unsung heroes of community theater.
Gary Kekel is the very capable theatre manager at the Salem Community Theatre. His very talented wife is Cheryl Kekel. Together they have brought so very much to not only the theatre but to our community as well. We are fortunate to have this devoted and dedicated couple.
When Karen Hauck-Losito is not entertaining us on stage, she is the tireless box office manager. She is a great lady. Karen is the one who greets us at the beginning of a show. Her sincerity and attentiveness for the well-being of her guests is felt by everyone present. You know you're welcomed here; it feels as good as home.
And one of my personal heroes at SCT is the very talented, creative and caring Carolyn Saunders. She has designed hundreds of shows for SCT, and has been my ally for many years in doing costumes for the Salem High School drama department. I hold her in high esteem.
The purpose for a theatrical review is to either warn audience members not to buy tickets for a particular show. Or to encourage them to buy tickets. Many of you who are reading this review know me personally. You know that I am candid and honest. Those of you who don't know me, simply have to take my word for it. The Salem Community Theatre's production of Mel Brooks' classic "The Producers" is simply outstanding.
As soon as you finish reading this review, call the box office immediately. The number is: 330-332-9688. There are only three shows left:?Friday, Aug. 8, and Saturday, Aug. 9, with 8 p.m. curtains; and, a Sunday, Aug. 10, matinee at 2 p.m.
The show will be sold out. Don't say I didn't warn you. If you want to laugh until it almost hurts, be certain to see "The Producers." You won't be disappointed.
(Editor's note: Viencek is an English and theatre instructor at Salem City Schools and director of numerous plays and musicals, playwright.)