May 2008

Bialystock and Bloom: The Producers arrive at the Arts Center of Coastal Carolina

Author: Paul deVere

Mel Brooks Takes No Prisoners—Thank Goodness!

In 2001, it won a record-breaking 12 Tony Awards, 10 Drama Desk awards and broke a Broadway box office record, selling more than $3 million worth of tickets in a single day. Then in 2003, it broke its own box office record by selling $3.5 million in a single day. Even the set and costumes won a Tony. And now it’s here (including the set and costumes), through May 25, at the Arts Center of Coastal Carolina: Mel Brooks’ The Producers. And it takes no prisoners.

Based on the classic cult movie, Brooks’ musical has been called an “equal opportunity offender” and, in the same breath, a tribute to the golden age of the Broadway musical. It is both. Director Casey Colgan described it as a “physical comedy, slap stick, and very Vaudeville.” In other words, very Mel Brooks.

The story line is straightforward. A one-time successful producer, Max Bialystock, is down on his luck. His new play, Funny Boy, a musical based on Hamlet, has just opened—and closed. Leo Bloom, his ultra-shy accountant, discovers Bialystock can actually make much more money producing a loser. That money is raised by Bialystock’s cadre of little old ladies whom he must, more or less, seduce to get the check.

After a bit of cajoling, Bialystock convinces Bloom, who has dreamed of being a Broadway producer all his life and, more or less, worships Bialystock from his earlier successes, to find the worst script possible (Springtime for Hitler, written by unrepentant Nazi Franz Liebkind) and have it directed by the worst director who ever lived (as described by Max), Roger De Bris. Of course, the worst thing happens: the play is a smash hit. The ramifications of this turn of events lands Bialystock, then Bloom, in jail. Which is the happy ending. Very Mel Brooks.

Politically incorrect? Sure. How refreshing.

With a cast of 27, Colgan has taken on a big task. This is his 40th show on the island, which he says proves Hilton Head “is definitely my second home.” This is also the regional premier of The Producers, a big feather in the Arts Center’s cap. Colgan describes it as, “a huge thing.”

“Each year this theatre tries to get something very new, very progressive in the material they are choosing, but is still marketable,” said Colgan. “Going to a play at the Arts Center is a family tradition. We want people of all ages to be comfortable in their seats.”

Director Casey Colgan laughs during rehearsal

While it is the board (and audience) who select the material, it is Colgan’s job to select the actors who will bring the work to life. The tryout process, which takes place in New York and Hilton Head Island, is the foundation for the show’s success. Colgan knows this. He takes every advantage he has to ensure the show is a winner, and he makes sure he has some aces up his sleeve. “Whatever is best for the audience on Hilton Head. That’s kind of my motto. If I have to steal a joke from somebody, if I have to steal a dance step, whatever it takes. I love being creative, but will borrow when necessary,” Colgan said.

Colgan didn’t so much “borrow” for The Producers, he just took some bold moves to give Hilton Head the best that was out there. When he couldn’t find the right Ulla, the sexy bombshell in the play and Leo Bloom’s love interest, he put in a call to Elizabeth Pawlowski, the actress who played the part in the musical’s national tour. The tour closed two weeks prior to the Arts Center opening. Pawlowski said yes to Colgan’s request. “I saw her perform, and that was her audition,” Colgan said. “Perfect.”

Elizabeth Pawlowski as Ulla, Leo Bloom’s love interest.

The dance supervisor for the national tour, Ann Presley, is the show’s choreographer. What a resume. Fourteen years with the famed Rockettes and a father who pitched for the Pittsburgh Pirates. She grew up in a dance studio her mother ran. She teaches at the American National and Dramatic Academy (AMDA), where Colgan also teaches. She’s using the “template” that Susan Stroman, the musical’s original choreographer, created, but has added pieces of her own.

Presley had actually visited Hilton Head—unlike most of the cast—when she was a child. “It’s nice to be on the island as an adult. You know, drive around in a car. I’m thrilled to be here,” she said.

Brad Nacht, who plays Max Bialystock, the desperate producer, had the opportunity to play both Max and Roger (the inept director of the musical within the musical) on the national tour. Colgan scooped him up. Again, it made sense. He already knew the part.

“Max used to be a great producer and is down on his luck,” Nacht said. “Now he’s in it for the money and doesn’t really care for the shows. You see his office (posters for the plays), The Breaking Winds and When Cousins Marry, you know they’re pretty bad shows. He’s a completely, greasy, slimy, dirty producer. Obviously, it’s one of my favorite parts.”

One of the youngest members of the troupe Colgan has assembled is Emily Yates, who plays an older woman known as “Hold Me-Touch Me.” Her “seduction” of Max Bialystock is vintage Brooks.

Scott Evans as Leo Bloom (left) and Fred Hedemark as Mr. Marks, Leo’s overbearing boss in the accounting firm.

Fresh out of the American Musical and Dramatic Academy—she graduated a few months ago—she went to an open dance call Colgan held in New York. “Casey was one of my dance teachers (at AMDA). I had no idea he was directing it. He suggested I read for the part. I didn’t come in with this in mind at all, not that I’m not thrilled that I get a chance to do it,” said Yates.

Yates may be the person who, geographically, is the farthest removed from Hilton Head. Her home is North Pole, Alaska, where she was actively involved in community theatre before she turned professional. Of her amateur career she said, “I mostly did it to forget that I was freezing.” She is only slightly concerned that her first professional role is that on an eighty-year-old.

If the show has a “showstopper” tune, it is the play within a play’s title and theme song, “Springtime for Hitler.” Work with me here. You’ve got two Jewish producers pushing a pro-Nazi play on the public. Remember, this is Mel “Blazing Saddles-Young Frankenstein-Robin Hood: Men-in-Tights” Brooks.

Colgan knew the perfect “Aryan” to pull it off: Nic Thompson. He’s blonde, a tenor, can tap dace virtually anyone off the stage, and totally appreciates Brooksian humor.

Celebrate magazine snuck into a rehearsal for some “Behind the Scenes” shots!

Not everyone in the musical has Broadway credentials, which for some, is the beauty of Arts Center productions—the mix of amateur and pro. Fred Hedemark and his wife retired to Hilton Head ten years ago. He’s been busy fixing up a “fixer-upper” house he and his wife fell in love with. Before his lifelong career with AT&T, Hedemark participated in college and community theatre. “That was a long, long time ago,” Hedemark laughs. When his rehab career with his house in Sea Pines ended successfully, he found he had a little time to spare. The theatre called.

His experience so far? “This is one of the most energetic, crazy and yet well choreographed and well orchestrated plays I’ve ever seen. It all fits together,” he said.

Hedemark, who plays the judge, might have hit it just right. Colgan’s job is to fit all the pieces together. It is his job to set up the laugh lines, oversee the dance routines, and make sure the audience loves Mel Brook’s quirky paean to Broadway and the golden age of musicals.

“The cast we have is going to be a really special group. They are going to make their mark on the island. I like to surround myself with fabulous people,” Colgan said. Which is very similar to the attitude of many on Hilton Head Island. They like to surround themselves with fabulous people, too. Like Casey Colgan.

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