Arts & Culture

Theater preview: ‘The Producers’ back in the limelight

From left, David Johnson as Bialystock, Jessica Ernest as Ulla and Richard Lafleur as Bloom in “The Producers.”
From left, David Johnson as Bialystock, Jessica Ernest as Ulla and Richard Lafleur as Bloom in “The Producers.” Courtesy photo

David Johnson, one of the leads of the national tour of “The Producers” that opens in Wichita on Tuesday, believes he’s a better actor these days because he left the stage after seven intense years, changed careers three times, took a year off and thought about what he really wanted to do with his life.

“People should live several different lives. If they’ve only been an actor, that’s boring. They have no other life experience to draw on,” says the Philadelphia native who moved to New York at 17, went on his first national tour at 19, and worked so consistently that he burned out at 26.

“I wanted a normal life. I wanted personal relationships. I wanted a home to settle into,” says Johnson, who partnered with a friend to open a successful nightclub from 1997 to 2003, then veered into teaching acting at New York University and finally decided to get a nursing degree “of all things.”

“The funny thing is that I discovered how much drama there is in hospital work. Being an actor is all about behavioral observation. In nursing, we call it ‘acute clinical assessment.’ In acting, like in nursing, you can’t have a bad day because so many people are relying so much on you to make their day better,” Johnson says.

But the now 40-something Johnson decided to come back to the stage after having a New York University reunion with some old theater pals, including Tony winner Idina Menzel (“Wicked,” “Frozen”). He thought he’d start small to see how things went, but “The Producers” suddenly cropped up and he jumped right back in.

“I realized an actor is like a healer. People need to laugh. They come to the show after a hard day expecting to leave feeling differently than when they came in,” Johnson says. “If they don’t feel that, you haven’t done your job.”

“The Producers,” which holds the Broadway record with 12 Tony Awards and is notably the best musical of 2001, is Mel Brooks’ stage adaptation of his classic 1968 film farce of the same name. It’s about a pair of showbiz schemers who discover a legal loophole that says they can make more money with a flop than a success. If they raise more money than needed and the show closes quickly, they get to keep what’s left rather than having to pay back investors.

They carefully choose what they expect to be a guaranteed flop — an egregious Nazi valentine called “Springtime for Hitler” — oversell the show to investors, then wait for it to tank opening night and gleefully head off to warmer climes with their ill-gotten gains. But when the show becomes an unexpected hit, hilarity – as they say – ensues.

The show features David Johnson as desperate and devious veteran producer Max Bialystock and Richard LaFleur as his mousy accountant and naive producing partner Leo Bloom. Jessica Ernest is Ulla, the blonde Swedish bombshell who runs Max and Leo’s office, and Thomas Slater is Nazi-in-hiding playwright Franz Liebkind. John B. Boss is Roger DeBris, the flamboyant actor chosen as “Springtime’s” song-and-dance Hitler, and J. Ryan Carroll is Carman Ghia, the actor’s waspish assistant.

Among the award-winning, toe-tapping songs are “I Want to Be a Producer,” “The King of Broadway,” “When You’ve Got It, Flaunt It,” “Where Did We Go Right?” and, of course, the pivotal production number “Springtime for Hitler.”

For LeFleur, playing Leo was initially a bit intimidating because he didn’t want to be accused of copying either Gene Wilder from the 1968 movie or Matthew Broderick from the Broadway original and the subsequent 2005 movie because both are so fondly remembered.

“People remember those performances so well, but, fortunately, we were given leeway to make the characters our own,” says LaFleur, a Montreal native who studied and performed Shakespeare in England but lightened up his resume as a lead singer for Carnival Cruises and in a production of “La Cage aux Folles.”

“I researched the original material and interviews with Mel Brooks, so I have come to appreciate Leo as the Everyman through whose eyes we see the story. Leo meets these crazy, larger-than-life characters and he reacts like a normal person. He is introverted, but he is also grounded. He reacts truthfully,” LaFleur says.

“I play him somewhere between Wilder and Broderick, although probably a little closer to Wilder in intensity, particularly with his security blanket. I always wanted to be a serious actor, but this has changed my perspective. I want the diversity in my career. At first, I was absolutely convinced that I was nothing like Leo, but as time goes on, we are more alike than I care to admit,” LaFleur says with a chuckle.

Ernest eagerly admits she “loves, loves, loves” playing sexy, leggy Ulla, whose showstopper number is, appropriately, “If You Got It, Flaunt It.”

“I’m naturally brunette, so when I put on the blonde wig, it gives me a complete personality change,” says Ernest, a Maine native previously seen in “The Drowsy Chaperone,” “Chicago” and the west coast premiere of “Big Fish.”

“And when I slip into the form-fitting costumes that are made especially for me, I slip right into character because I feel like a million bucks. It’s empowering for me because Ulla does things I’m not capable of in real life,” Ernest says.

I love Ulla because she is a woman who knows what she wants. There are a lot of actresses who would probably go for the blonde bimbo stereotype, but that’s not Ulla at all. She’s very smart – more life smart than educated smart – but she knows what she’s capable of. She’s just the right combination of class and sass.

Actress Jessica Ernest

“I love Ulla because she is a woman who knows what she wants. There are a lot of actresses who would probably go for the blonde bimbo stereotype, but that’s not Ulla at all. She’s very smart – more life smart than educated smart – but she knows what she’s capable of. She’s just the right combination of class and sass,” Ernest says.

Thomas Slater has wanted to play the hilariously absurdist role of playwright Franz since he saw Will Ferrell do the role in the 2005 movie.

“I love playing Franz because he is so insane. I like high-energy roles. I like to let go and do a loud voice,” says Slater, an Oregon native whose credits include regional productions of “The Drowsy Chaperone,” “The Music Man” and “My Fair Lady.” “I love doing catchy voices and accents.”

Franz certainly gives Slater a rich vocal playing field.

“Poor Franz has only two things in his life: His pigeons and Broadway,” Slater says. “He spends most of his time with his rooftop coop of birds. They are his only friends. But he has a secret passion for Broadway and writes ‘Springtime for Hitler’ because he wants everybody to love the Hitler he remembers.”

The genius of “The Producers,” Slater says, is that Brooks lampoons the golden age of Broadway by glorifying it.

‘The Producers’

What: Mel Brooks’ 2001 Tony-winning best musical based on his farcical 1968 movie about two Broadway conmen putting on the world’s worst musical; national touring show sponsored by Theater League

Where: Century II Concert Hall, 225 W. Douglas

When: 7:30 p.m. Jan. 19 to Jan. 21

Tickets: $40, $55, $65 and $70, www.wichitatix.com or 316-303-8100

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