JCC Gallery Players Takes on The Producers for its 65th Season Musical

Gallery Players is ready to bring audiences spectacle, over-the-top comedy, and breathlessly-paced music and dance. This March, the same team that staged the critically acclaimed Fiddler on the Roof will delight audiences with the multiple Tony Award-winning Mel Brooks musical, The Producers. Reuniting Fiddler on the Roof director Mark Mann, music director Stephanie Stephens, and some of the same cast, including actors Todd Covert, Joan Fishel, Susan Gellman, and Rick Holt, Gallery Players will bring this hysterical Broadway musical to life for the first time in the JCC’s Roth/Resler Theater.

Mann, who recently won Best Director at the Theatre Roundtable awards for Fiddler on the Roof, returns to Gallery Players to direct a show from one of his favorite comedians. He looks forward to taking audiences on a wild, unforgettable ride. “I hope their ribs hurt from laughing. If, when the curtain goes down at the end of the play, everyone hasn’t found something offensive in it, then we’ve failed in our mission. That’s what Mel Brooks wants. He spares virtually no one,” Mann said.

Gallery Players committee chair Joan Fishel, who was recently in Fiddler on the Roof and who is member of the ensemble in The Producers, agreed that, “Nothing is sacred to Mel Brooks. In making fun of everybody and everything, no one can feel slighted.”

The musical, which began as a 1968 movie of the same name, centers on a down-and-out Broadway producer, Max Bialystock, and his neurotic accountant, Leo Bloom. In misguided attempts to get back on top, the pair work together to stage a flop and bilk investors, hoping that audiences will reject the ill-conceived show, “Springtime for Hitler.” To their dismay, the show becomes a hit. And along the way, every joke, gag, and insult Mel Brooks could fit into the two-hour script is thrown at audiences.

But the comedy is not without intention. In a March 2006 interview in Spiegel, Brooks explained why he chose to use the offensive subject of Adolf Hitler as a source for comedy. “Of course it is impossible to take revenge for six million murdered Jews. But by using the medium of comedy, we can try to rob Hitler of his posthumous power and myths,” said Brooks.

Mann said he will direct the musical with this in mind. “Mel’s point is that the way to defeat that kind of person and that kind of thinking is to hold them up to ridicule. By making them so ridiculous, they lose their power.”

Gallery Players Managing and Artistic Director Jared Saltman explained that this production will stay true to Mel Brooks’ intention. “The word ‘subtle’ doesn’t appear in the Mel Brooks lexicon, and we are going to make sure it doesn’t appear in our production, either.”

With a seven-piece orchestra, musical direction by Stephanie Stephens, and choreography by Nikki Montana, Saltman is excited to treat audiences to the larger than life musical parody, which features chorus girls, Storm Troopers, and puppets singing and dancing across the stage in number after number.

Saltman said the high production value of this farce mocking Broadway will build on the success of last year’s Fiddler on the Roof. “You’re not going to have a more solid piece of entertainment for your dollar. The talents we’ve assembled are going to do this show really well. I can’t wait to see it,” said Saltman.

Gallery Players committee member Susan Gellman is also eager to see the end result. She was last seen playing Golde in Fiddler on the Roof. But her new role in The Producers couldn’t be farther from Anatevka. She portrays the character of “Hold Me-Touch Me,” she said, “a caricature who doesn’t even have a name. She’s an archetype, like everyone in The Producers.” While her last dance partner was her husband, Cantor Jack Chomsky, who played Tevye, for this production, Gellman looks forward to singing and dancing with a different kind of dance partner. “When else am I ever going to get a chance to tap dance with a walker?”

Todd Covert stars as Max Bialystock, the stereotypically egotistical Broadway producer. Covert hopes to humanize his character, playing him with empathy as a downtrodden failure hopeful to return to his former glory. “I view the character as being kind of down on his luck. Then he realizes that there’s a possibility of partnering with Leo and coming up with the biggest scam, so that one final send-off excites him and that gets him into the groove again,” said Covert.

With over 25 years experience in film, television, and the stage, the seasoned Gallery Players performer was also a member of the award-winning cast of Fiddler on the Roof. He is excited to return to the stage with some of the cast from that production. “The more you work with somebody, the more you trust them when you’re on stage. You form a bond and the better you are together. I love the people at Gallery Players. They’ve embraced me. It’s just a really warm, great place to work and I enjoy performing there,” said Covert.

Covert will play opposite Patrick Walters, who stars as Leo Bloom. The two actors enjoy working together, and it shows in the chemistry they have on stage. “I love working with Patrick,” said Covert. “Our timing is going to be really good.”

Walters, who has performed in Gallery Players’ productions of Bye, Bye Birdie and Rags, and was most recently seen in CATCO’s The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee and Avenue Q, is excited to work with all his co-stars, including his wife, Brooke Walters.

“There are a lot of talented and giving actors in this production, so my plan is simple: to put all my attention on them. If I’m listening and responding to what they’re giving me, I can only hope I’m giving them the same thing in return. And that usually keeps the show fresh and real for every performance,” Walters said.

The Producers is Walters’ eighth production working with his wife, Brooke. It marks the third time the pair will be playing opposite each other on stage. But to star together as love interests in The Producers, Patrick as Leo and Brooke as Ulla, Walters said, is a once-in-lifetime opportunity. “We’re loving every moment. The sparks start flying on stage and we get to take advantage of the chemistry we have.”

And sparks, or perhaps sequins, will definitely fly between the show’s pairing of Roger Debris and Carmen Ghia. That’s because the two actors portraying this odd couple, Stewart Bender and Doug Joseph, will alternate their roles for every other performance. For the March 1 opening night, Bender will perform as Roger Debris, while Joseph will appear as the flamboyant yet buffoonish director of “Springtime for Hitler” during the production’s final show.

Mann decided to cast both men for each part because, he said, “They’re both so funny and talented. Each night, the interpretation will be different. We’ll make two different scenes that will work for them specifically. Both their Rogers are absolutely distinct. Both their Carmen Ghias are absolutely distinct. Each actor brings something very different to the words on the page. It makes it really fun to direct.”

“People should come back to see how each actor handles the part, because they will be different. In the 10 years I’ve been producing for Gallery Players, this is the first time we’ve ever done anything like this,” said Saltman.

When JCC member and The Producers ensemble player Noah Portman first took to the stage in 2006 as an elementary school student, he had never done anything quite like it before, either. Now, eight years later, he has performed in numerous Gallery Players shows, returning year after year for what he calls the thrill of performing.

Portman became hooked on Gallery Players because he said, “as a Sabbath-observant Jew, that’s what’s so great about Gallery Players. It allows me to do plays and large performances I would not be able to be in otherwise.” In 2012, he worked with director Mark Mann for the first time on Lost in Yonkers, an experience he described as, “incredible. It was awesome to be part of something so different.”

Now, he is enjoying working with the director again on something that takes him outside his comfort zone. “The dancing and singing in The Producers is all new to me,” he explained, “but that’s what’s so thrilling about it. I never thought I would be in something this big or fast-paced. To be in a Broadway musical like this, with all these great actors working off each other, making each joke bigger and better than the last, is so much fun,” said Portman.

More fun is in store for audiences with the character of Franz Liebkind, who will be portrayed by Second City alum Ralph Scott. Liebkind is a dedicated but demented ex-Nazi who has written “Springtime for Hitler” as a love letter. “Anyone who’s in love with Adolf Hitler has to be absolutely insane,” said Scott. “That’s the way I’m approaching it— just making him absolutely insane. I am trying to find as much funny in that character as I absolutely can, while making it come from a basis in reality so he doesn’t look like a cartoon character.”

For Scott, playing this role is a bit of a dream come true, and he is relishing every moment. He hopes the audience will share in his joy. Scott explained, “It is a dream of mine to heal the world with laughter. If there’s one reason God sent me to this world, it is to heal with laughter, so that does drive me. If I can get a laugh out of someone and change their point of view, it lets go of tension. It lets go of everything.”

The escapist comedy will have plenty of crescendos and moments of healing laughter. Audiences will be asked to suspend their disbelief and go along for the ride. And, hopefully, Covert added, “People will walk out of the theater feeling really good. When you walk out feeling some emotion, that’s the best kind of theater.”

Show times for The Producers are as follows: 8 pm, Saturday, March 1; 2:30 pm, Sunday, March 2; 7:30 pm, Thursday, March 6; 8 pm, Saturday, March 8; 2:30 pm, Sunday, March 9; 7:30 pm, Thursday, March 13; and two shows, at 2:30 pm and 7:30 pm, on Sunday, March 16. All shows take place in the Roth/Resler Theater of the Jewish Community Center of Greater Columbus, 1125 College Avenue, Columbus, OH 43209.

Tickets may be purchased online at www.jccgalleryplayers.org or by contacting the box office at (614) 231-2731. Tickets cost $25 for nonmembers and $20 for JCC members; $23 for senior nonmembers and $18 for senior members; $15 for children 17 years and under or for students with a valid ID; and $15 per ticket for groups of 20 or more.