ST. PETERSBURG — Think early evening, daylight saving version. The earth turning away, light fading in Demens Landing Park — everywhere except the stage, which is trying its best to resurrect midday.
"It looks like New York City at night," director Rye Mullis said during a rehearsal break of The Producers, this year’s American Stage in the Park production. "It looks like the heart of Times Square."
This spoof of show business, which starts with a glitzy five-minute song and dance with usherette showgirls, sweeps the set with light. Beneath the engagement itself lies a quiet purpose. The park show’s opening gala raises tens of thousands for American Stage, making it one of the most important fundraisers on the local performing arts scene. Announced a year ago, the Mel Brooks musical happens to arrive at a time of angst foreshadowing midterm elections, potential military escalation and an acrimonious national mood.
And in this moment comes this story about a wannabe Broadway producer and a real but crooked one, replete with Hitler and Nazi symbolism.
Mullis brings a variety of skills to the director’s chair, each adding another tool to work on The Producers. After cutting his teeth with Ringling Brothers, he worked on cruise lines and at Disney World, where he picked up a sense of spectacle. He also played the Monster on Broadway in Young Frankenstein, another Mel Brooks musical.
"I’ve been dying to be a part of the Tampa Bay theater scene, which is like Club 33 to get into," said Mullis, 36, dropping a reference to a pricey private club on Disney resorts. "It’s like, ‘Somebody let me play with you guys,’ and you’ve got to be invited in by the top. I can’t think of a better project than The Producers with which to start my first theatrical adventure here in Florida."
He believes the show actually fits an atmosphere of national nervousness as world leaders trade taunts.
"What’s funny is that at a time like this, when we are in the middle of a lot of stressful stuff, is to remember that the original Producers musical came right around 9/11," Mullis said. "And that was all we needed on Broadway, was a break from the heavy Les Miserables musicals and the death. Just to get a musical out there that was nothing but funny."
The #MeToo movement, a cultural groundswell of a different kind, did inspire a tweak. As the show is written, the relationship between Max and Ulla, the female lead, comes straight off the casting couch.
"That was one things that I was very adamant about when we started the show," Mullis said. "I said, ‘There’s absolutely no way to approach the role of Ulla the way it’s traditionally done.’ With Matt (McGee, who plays Max) and Gretchen (Bieber, who plays Ulla), we’ve discovered little relationships between the two of them that makes them more like buds, as opposed to she’s just there to be chased around."
Brooks, the 91-year-old son of German immigrants, has described himself as a secular Jew. Despite his reputation as a king of the politically incorrect, he made this distinction to Moment Magazine: "You could make a comedy about the Germans, you could make a comedy about the Nazis. But not the Holocaust."
The 2005 film musical laid on the symbolism generously, with leather and jackboots, the Reichsadler (the Nazi imperial eagle) and a chorus line of dancing Nazis. Late last week, creative forces at American Stage were still weighing which symbols to include and how.
"It is true that the subjects of Hitler and Nazis are the butt of Mel Brooks’ ridicule," producing artistic director Stephanie Gularte told the Times in an email. "And we recognize that given our current climate this may be received with a heightened sensitivity. Because of this we are continuing to make decisions about how to honor Mel Brooks’ intentions while being sensitive to our current climate."
Meet the talent
For Matthew McGee, the role has been decades in the making. He plays Max Bialystock, the mastermind of a scheme to defraud investors by putting on a show bad enough to close after one night.
"You know how people will say, ‘I listened to the Rent soundtrack hundreds of times?’" said McGee, 43. "The Producers was like my Rent. I had to wait in line to see it with Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick. I couldn’t wait."
This is his third production of the show. He has twice played the cross-dressing Roger De Bris, who plays Hitler in this show within a show. But he’s always wanted to play Max, the role immortalized by Lane.
"Max Bialystock to me is one of the Hamlets of musical theater," McGee said. An accomplished drag performer who played Edna Turnblad in last year’s park production of Hairspray, he can stick to a three-piece suit.
"It’s such an easy preparation for me," he said. As it happens, Scott Daniel, McGee’s sidekick in the Scott and Patti Show, a local mother and son act, is playing Roger.
"I’m watching Scott get in all his makeup and I’m like this," he said. "It’s been fun."
Jim Sorensen, who plays the Hitler-loving simpleton Franz Leibkind, strolled the park in lederhosen and knee socks.
"It’s so comfortable, I love it," said Sorensen, 45.
He hopes Franz comes off as more of a childlike fanboy than a hardcore convert, but would just as soon not think about that too much.
"It’s such a parody and a spoof, and it’s such a lampooning of the whole thing," he said. "It takes me back to being able to do ze accent, don lederhosen and have a ridiculous amount of fun."
Sorensen compared Franz to Frau Farbissina in the first Austin Powers movie. He suddenly barked the name of Dr. Evil’s son, Scott, with a thick German accent.
Contact Andrew Meacham at [email protected] or (727) 892-2248. Follow @torch437.