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Broadway Series South will bring Brooklyn-born comedian Mel Brooks' prize-winning backstage musical The Producers to Raleigh Memorial Auditorium for eight performances, starting Tuesday evening. Brilliantly adapted from the Academy Award®-winning 1968 film by the fiercely irreverent creator of Young Frankenstein and Blazing Saddles and Tony Award®-winning Annie and Hairspray librettist Thomas Meehan, this big Broadway hit debuted April 19, 2001 at the St. James Theatre, won more Tony Awards® than any other musical ever, and is still running, with more than 1,450 performances to date.
"I was a great fan of the movie," says two-time Tony nominee Lewis J. Stadlen, who played desperate, down-on-his-luck producer-turned gigolo Max Bialystock on Broadway and stars in the current Max Tour of The Producers, produced by Rocco Landesman, Clear Channel Entertainment, et al. and directed and choreographed by Susan Stroman.
Max's surname is an inside joke, Stadlen reveals. He says "Bialystock" is a small community in Poland.
Stadlen also notes, "I was a great fan of the movie. I wanted to play Max Bialystock even though I was 15 [in 1968]."
The Broadway veteran is no stranger to North Carolina. He spent four weeks in Durham in 1993 during the out-of-town tryout, produced by Theatre Previews at Duke, for Neil Simon's heavily autobiographical Broadway-bound comedy Laughter on the 23rd Floor. Stadlen also taught and directed at the N.C. School of the Arts in Winston-Salem.
Lewis Stadlen claims, "I do believe that I've done more Neil Simon plays on Broadway than any other actor"; and he admits, "I have always identified with character actors who performed with size. That is, a person who has enormous needs and will do anything to fulfill those needs."
Stadlen made his Broadway debut in 1967 in Fiddler on the Roof, starring Luther Adler. He has received two Tony nominations so far: the first time for Best Actor in a Musical in 1974 for playing Voltaire, Dr. Pangloss, and four other roles in Leonard Bernstein's Candide and the second time for Best Featured Actor in a Musical in 1996 for playing the quintessential dirty old man Senex in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, starring Nathan Lane.
The Max Tour of The Producers also stars television, stage, and motion-picture star Alan Ruck as Leo Bloom, the unscrupulous accountant who shows Max how they can make a bundle by producing the worst musical ever to stink up the Great White Way. Ruck is most famous for playing four-eyed, flat-topped sexual super-freak Stuart Bondek on the TV series "Spin City," starring Michael J. Fox and, later, Charlie Sheen and Heather Locklear.
Springtime for Hitler, the side-splitting show-within-the-show that Max and Leo oversubscribe to bilk investors, celebrates the love affair between Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler and his mistress Eva Braun. It is the epitome of bad taste and seems guaranteed to lay a great big malodorous egg. But then a funny thing happens. The show is a hit, and Max and Leo are in a world of trouble!
In addition to Messrs. Stadlen and Ruck, the Max Tour cast includes Charley Izabella King as Ulla, the voluptuous Swedish actress who keeps both Max and Leo panting; Michael McCormick as unrepentant ex-Nazi playwright Franz Liebkind; Lee Roy Reams as monumentally inept director Roger De Bris; and Harry Bouvy as assistant to the director Carmen Ghia.
Lewis Stadlen says, "As an actor, one spends so much time trying to make inferior theater shine. I knew The Producers was a terrific piece of material. Zero Mostel created the role of Max Bialystock in the movie, and Nathan Lane created the role of Max on Broadway.
"Certainly," Stadlen says, "I wanted to channel the essence of [Zero Mostel's] performance. His Max Bialystock was a person who had no guilt. I think any actors worth their salt steal from the best. But none of us are so artful a mimic that the audience will feel I'm doing an imitation of Zero Mostel; I'm just channeling his essence."
He also claims that Nathan Lane, who played Max to Matthew Broderick's Leo in the original Broadway production, was also imitating Zero Mostel. In following in the footsteps of Zero Mostel and Nathan Lane, Stadlen says, "I realized that I had to perform the role with the same sense of urgency. Max Bialystock will do anything to accomplish its objectives."
Lewis Stadlen explains, "Max Bialystock is a producer who's … searching for any way possible to make a financial killing in the Broadway theater. He supports himself by making love to old ladies. Then, one day, Max is audited by a mousy accountant named Leo Bloom, and Leo realizes that you could make more money with a flop than you can with a hit — if the play you produce is so terrible that it closes in one night.
"If you capitalize a play for $500,000 and you're certain that it will close," Stadlen explains, "you can raise 10 times as much money as you need. If you don't have to pay back the investors, then you can take the money and fly off to Rio de Janeiro and live the Life of Riley. So, Max and Leo try to put together the elements of the worst musical in the history of the theater by producing a play by an ex-Nazi, who has written an operetta whose point of view is that Adolf Hitler and Eva Braun were like Nelson Eddy and Jeanette MacDonald in a Viennese operetta."
Stadlen says, "Max and Leo enlist the aid of the worst director in the Broadway theater and employ as their leading actress Ulla, a Swedish bombshell who can barely speak English; and they present the play to the theatergoing public. And it turns out to be a smash hit! And their plot fails."
The original Broadway production of The Producers took home a dozen 2001 Tony Awards, including the Tonys for Best Musical, Best Book of a Musical (Brooks and Meehan), Best Original Score (Brooks), Best Direction and Best Choreography of a Musical (Stroman), Best Scenic Design (Robin Wagner), Best Costume Design (William Ivey Long), Best Lighting Design (Peter Kaczorowski), and Best Orchestrations (Doug Besterman).
The Max Tour of The Producers has the same creative team, plus three other members of the Broadway crew: Patrick Brady (musical direction/vocal arrangements), Glen Kelly (musical arrangements and supervision), and Steve Kennedy (sound).
Lewis Stadlen says, "I and the entire national company have tried to make our production of The Producers as good as the Broadway production. I've done this role for six months on Broadway, and I can assure you that our company is better than the one in New York at this stage."
He adds, "Mel Brooks... created a comic vocabulary for people of my generation. I think that what makes a character innately comic is that he is a heroic fool, an unapologetic coward who will do anything to obtain his objectives. This was a style of comedy that was personified by great comic actors, such as Bob Hope, Jack Benny, Groucho Marx, Jimmy Durante, Frank Morgan, and Zero Mostel. These were the people that brought me so much enjoyment when I was a child that it made me gravitate to becoming an actor myself."
Stadlen claims that the musical version of The Producers is even better than the motion picture that inspired it. "It's the best musical that has been created for the theater in the last 20 years," he declares. "The story is better, because the role of Ulla, who was just a sight gag in the film, is turned into a major character; and the plot is progressed with a romantic triangle between Leo Bloom, Max Bialystock, and her. That gives the musical more warmth, more heart."
Broadway Series South presents The Producers Tuesday-Friday, Nov. 2-5, at 8 p.m.; Saturday, Nov. 6, at 2 and 8 p.m.; and Sunday, Nov. 7, at 2 and 7 p.m. in Raleigh Memorial Auditorium in the BTI Center for the Performing Arts, 1 E. South St., Raleigh, North Carolina. $34-$84. BTI Box Office: 919/831-6060. Group Rates (for groups of 20 or more): 919/857-4565 or http://www.broadwayseriessouth.com/2004-2005/group.html. Broadway Series South: http://www.broadwayseriessouth.com/2004-2005/broadway.html#produce. Internet Broadway Database: http://www.ibdb.com/Show.asp?id=10510. Internet Movie Database (1968 Film): http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0063462/. The Offical Broadway Site: http://www.producersonbroadway.com/. The Tour Site: http://www.producersontour.com/.