Mel Brooks mines unlikely comic material in ‘The Producers’

By: K. Michelle Moran | Grosse Pointe Times | Published May 6, 2015

 Mitch Master, center, as Max Bialystock, is seen here among the Little Old Ladies in “The Producers.” In the front row, from left, are Nancy DeRita, Sarah Jasinski, Master, Katy Schoetzow and Julianna Brennan. In the back row, from left, are Anna Christinidis, Virginia Lee, Andrew Szykula, Robby Mullinger, José Cabrera, Audrey Brown and Peter DiSante.

Mitch Master, center, as Max Bialystock, is seen here among the Little Old Ladies in “The Producers.” In the front row, from left, are Nancy DeRita, Sarah Jasinski, Master, Katy Schoetzow and Julianna Brennan. In the back row, from left, are Anna Christinidis, Virginia Lee, Andrew Szykula, Robby Mullinger, José Cabrera, Audrey Brown and Peter DiSante.

Photo by Dale Pegg, courtesy of Grosse Pointe Theatre

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GROSSE POINTE FARMS — If dancing and singing Nazis sound like the makings of a terrible musical, that’s exactly what Broadway producer Max Bialystock and his accountant, Leo Bloom, believed.


After realizing they can make more money from a flop than a hit, the men come up with “Springtime for Hitler,” which they’re certain will be the biggest disaster in theatrical history. But when the show turns out to be a smash, they find themselves facing prison time.


Legendary comic Mel Brooks first introduced audiences to the madcap aforementioned story in the 1968 film “The Producers,” and though he always wanted to transform the show into a Broadway musical, that didn’t happen until more than 30 years later, in 2001. The musical comedy “The Producers” won a record 12 Tony Awards — a record that still stands today — and now Grosse Pointe Theatre is bringing its own talented actors and crew to the beloved show. “The Producers” will open with a 2 p.m. show on Mother’s Day, May 10, and the production will run through May 23.


Director Mike Trudel, of Grosse Pointe Park, is a lifelong Mel Brooks fan, and Trudel said “The Producers” is one of his favorite Brooks films. He said the mantra during rehearsals has been “WWMD — What would Mel do?”


“It’s my duty as director to make sure I don’t screw it up, because quite frankly, with this script, it’s hard to screw it up,” Trudel said.


The director said he especially loves Brooks’ irreverence.


“He is not the least bit concerned by the fact that something he said is politically incorrect,” said Trudel, who draws inspiration from “some of the great directors” he’s worked with, including Harry Albertson, Joyce Schultheiss, Dennis Wickline and his late mother, Barbara Bentley. “It’s about the laugh and doing whatever it takes to get the laugh.”


Mother-and-daughter costume designers Jeanne and Anna Chrisman, of Harper Woods, said the crew isn’t immune to the show’s uncomfortably funny elements. A woman with an embroidery machine offered her assistance, but after stitching swastikas, she told Anna Chrisman that she “had so much fun” working on the costumes, but “felt kind of weird” at the same time.


After doing backstage work over the last couple of years, Nick Doyle, of Grosse Pointe Woods — who plays Carmen Ghia — said he was excited about returning to the stage. His over-the-top character is a change of pace from the comic roles that Doyle played before, which he described as the shy, clumsy guy.


“I now get to be this sort of zany character on purpose,” he said. “So I get to wear a lot of leather and sparkly, shiny things. It’s a big challenge for me, because I’m not like (Carmen Ghia) at all. It’s out of my comfort zone.”


Tom Arwady, of Harrison Township — better known to Grosse Pointers as a fourth-grade teacher at Monteith Elementary — plays another outrageous character, Hitler aficionado Franz Liebkind.


“It’s really fun, but it’s tricky to make a Nazi likable,” Arwady said.


He said he would have taken “any role in this show” because he loves Mel Brooks. Arwady’s gotten some help with his German accent from Tom Archinal, of Grosse Pointe Park, the stage manager, who speaks German.


Not that Franz needs to have perfectly polished German, though.


“It’s distorted German,” Arwady said of his character’s dialogue. “A lot of it is gibberish. They even slipped some Yiddish (words) in there.”


Playing Leo Bloom — a role occupied by Gene Wilder in the original film and Matthew Broderick on Broadway — has been a thrill for Kevin Fitzhenry, of Warren.


“This is one of my dream shows,” he said. “This is my No. 1 bucket list role. … It’s such a fun role. And the character goes through such a transition (during the show).”


Tom Pagano, of Clinton Township, plays Roger De Bris, the director of “Springtime.”


“It’s been great because it’s just a fun character,” he said. “He’s the worst director in the world.”


“The Producers” also features Mitch Master of Bloomfield Hills as Max Bialystock and Allison McClelland of Grosse Pointe Park as the sexy Swedish secretary Ulla. The ensemble cast consists of Julianna Brennan of Grosse Pointe Park, Audrey Brown of Washington Township, José Cabrera of Madison Heights, Anna Christinidis of Grosse Pointe City, Scott Davis of Birmingham, Nancy DeRita of Chesterfield Township, Peter DiSante of St. Clair Shores, Michael Edick of Grosse Pointe Woods, Sarah Jasinski of Hazel Park, Melissa Kenyon of Sterling Heights, Virginia Lee of New Baltimore, Emma Lockwood of Huntington Woods, Robby Mullinger of Grosse Pointe City, Katy Schoetzow of Grosse Pointe Park, Trevor Sherry of Clinton Township, Andrew Szykula of Dearborn and Beth Teagan of Grosse Pointe Woods. Ellen Skinner Bowen of Grosse Pointe Park, who helmed Grosse Pointe South High School’s acclaimed show choir, is the music and vocal director, and the choreographers are Grace Knoche of New Baltimore and Theresa Pullen of Ferndale.


“It’s been fun watching the show grow,” said co-producer Clif Levin, of Detroit. “The cast is wonderful — one of the most enjoyable casts I’ve ever worked with.”


Doyle said Brooks is “purposely offensive,” but as Trudel noted, he’s an equal-opportunity offender, taking swipes at everyone. Audiences “need to have an open mind,” Doyle said.


“Expect to see what you never thought you would see put together,” he continued.


Fitzhenry said fans of musicals will see plenty of clever references to other shows tucked into “The Producers.”


“It really is a funny show, and it really is a great homage to musical comedy,” he said.


GPT shows are staged at the Grosse Pointe War Memorial, 32 Lake Shore in Grosse Pointe Farms. Tickets cost $24. For tickets or more information, call (313) 881-4004 or visit www.gpt.org.

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