The 1968 Mel Brooks film "The Producers" won best screenplay from the Academy Awards and the Writers Guild of America.
Brooks' 2001 Broadway musical adaptation of his film won 12 of the 15 Tony Awards for which it was nominated.
It was so popular that the musical itself was shot for the big screen in 2005.
Mirror photo by Patrick Waksmunski
Max Bialystock (Jonathan O’Harrow, far left) faces off against the Little Old Ladies in ACT’s “The Producers.”
How do you improve on that kind of success?
In a lot of ways, you don't, says Kate Kale Wolf, the director of Altoona Community Theatre's production of "The Producers," opening Thursday and running through May 2 at the Mishler Theatre in Altoona.
"Something as iconic as 'The Producers' and as a Mel Brooks production, you don't want to do too much messing with," Wolf said. "But it's exciting to try to do different things or use your own style to spice it up a bit."
If you go
What: Altoona Community Theatre's "The Producers"
When: 8 p.m. Thursday through May 1 and 2 p.m. May 2
Where: The Mishler Theatre, Altoona
Tickets: $18 for adults and $15 for students (plus a box office fee)
"The Producers" is about a down-on-his-luck Broadway producer named Max Bialystock (played in the ACT production by Jonathan O'Harrow of Altoona). When a meek accountant named Leo Bloom (Cody Jones of Altoona) stops by to do his books, he accidentally gives Bialystock the idea for a grand scheme: raise big bucks to produce a Broadway show, then take off with the cash by making a flop - meaning the investors won't expect their money back. Bloom, harboring a secret desire to be a Broadway producer, signs on as his partner.
Picking the worst script they can find - "Springtime for Hitler," which Bialystock describes as "a love letter to Hitler!" - and the worst cast and crew they can recruit, Bialystock and Bloom give the show a big Broadway debut. To their horror, the audience sees the terrible production as a farce and "Springtime for Hitler" is a blockbuster hit.
"It's a big, fun musical," Wolf said. "There's a lot of excitement around it with ACT."
The director said the big-name musical produced a huge number of actors for the auditions, making casting easier "because of the great group to pull from." Wolf said the choices gave her a lot of options for casting actors who really fit the role - even if they didn't exactly fit the mold of the musical's Broadway portrayers (the roles were originated on stage by Nathan Lane as Max and Matthew Broderick as Leo).
"I think (casting) is one of the ways that a director can be individualistic with their approach," she said. "What I look for is people who can be funny, who get comedy."
O'Harrow, 31, is certainly one that fits the bill. A familiar face to local theatergoers, he has starred in ACT's last two children's theater productions and has worked on many comedies before, though his last regular season ACT work was the far more serious 2008 musical "Company."
A fan of both the original film and the Broadway adaptation, the role of the wily, boisterous Bialystock really appealed to O'Harrow.
"The first time I ever listened to the musical, I really liked that part," he said. "He's a big, larger-than-life character who not only does a lot of witty dialogue, but he gets to do a lot of physical humor."
Being familiar with the previous portrayals - Lane in the musical and Zero Mostel in the 1968 film - O'Harrow had to be careful not to take too much of what came before.
"It's tough because it's been played by some really great actors," he said. "It's sort of a role that became associated with (Lane). He did a lot of great things, so you don't want to disregard things that he did. But you don't want to just do a copycat performance either.
"So you want to keep some of the things that he did, but add things of your own."
As one of the musical's leads, O'Harrow has a part in most of the songs in "The Producers," including several duets and the solo "Betrayed."
"I really enjoy 'Betrayed,'" he said. "There's a section of it where Max recaps the entire show in about a minute. I like it because it's very challenging."
Also challenging? Learning a Swedish accent from the Internet. But that was what Jamie Markle, 23, of Hollidaysburg, did when preparing for the role of Ulla, Bialystock and Bloom's sultry receptionist.
"I went on YouTube and tried to get a handle on a fake Swedish accent," she said with a laugh.
Markle, whose last ACT show was also "Company," was unfamilar with "The Producers" before auditions. Nor has she watched the films since snagging the role.
"I actually avoided watching the movies because I wanted to keep my take on Ulla original," she said.
The writing of the character, basically the only female role in the work, appealed to her, Markle said. It's a role much expanded from the 1968 film, where Ulla was little more than a sight gag.
"I think that the character had a nice mix of comedy, yet realism," Markle said. "I just liked the way the character was written. ... I like Mel Brooks. What he thinks is funny is what I think is funny."
The musical's subject matter alarmed her a bit, she said.
"At first I was a bit concerned about what it was poking fun at," Markle said.
The "Springtime for Hitler" segments of the play can be shocking, O'Harrow said.
"We've been trying to get the word out there that the words 'politically correct' aren't in Mel Brooks' vocabulary," he explained. "It's important that people remember that it's all in good fun; he doesn't intend to insult or hurt anyone."
Despite those reservations, Wolf is confident that the audience will enjoy the show. And it just might stick with them long after the curtain closes.
"I wake up humming different (songs) every day," Wolf said, laughing. "My husband is working on the show too and we'll wake up and say, 'What song do you have in your head today?'"
Mirror Staff Writer Keith Frederick is at 946-7466.