Westminster preparing for ‘The Producers’

It was one of the most wildly popular shows in Broadway history.

So much so that it spawned a reprisal in London with the original Tony Award-winning cast, including Matthew Broderick and Nathan Lane.

Now, more than 2,500 shows after it first debuted in New York City in 2001, “The Producers” will make its way to the stage at Rider University’s Bart Leudeke Center Theater on the Lawrenceville campus.

The cast is made up entirely of students studying musical theater at Rider’s Westminster College of the Arts.

Robin Lewis will direct and choreograph the show, while Nathan Hurwitz will serve as musical director.

“The Producers,” as a musical, stems from the 1968 Mel Brooks movie of the same name. It’s the story of a down-on-his-luck producer Max Bialystock (Lane played this role in the Broadway version), his accountant Leopold “Leo” Bloom (Broderick played Bloom on Broadway) and their get-rich-quick scheme.

On Lewis and Hurwitz

Lewis, the show’s producer, is hardly new to “The Producers.” When the show went on its original national tour, he auditioned and acted in many performances. In fact, he was able to work closely with Brooks and the show’s touring choreographer, Susan Stroman.

Lewis says even to this day, the themes of the show can be shocking to some.

“The content of ‘The Producers’ can be shocking to some – dancing Nazis – (and) the Third Reich as comic relief is not necessarily your normal funny fare,” Lewis said. “The 1968 film version was released as an independent, with Hollywood studios rejecting it as too offensive. Yet, its quirky, sometimes shocking blend of off-beat humor made it a cult classic. The New York Times review aptly expressed it this way: ‘This musical is sure to offend anyone without a funny bone and bring nothing but child-like glee to everyone else.’ Mel Brooks said ‘The Producers’ is his love-letter to all the classic Broadway musicals.”

In addition to touring with “The Producers,” Lewis is no stranger to the world of directing plays. He’s directed shows such as “Fosse,” “Beauty and the Beast,” “A Christmas Carol,” “Victor/Victoria” and others.

He’s also choreographed shows, and has taught workshops at Texas State University and other academic institutions. This is his first year at Westminster.

Lewis says he and his cast are extremely excited about the upcoming performances, especially since this is but his second semester at Westminster – and because now is an important time to showcase just how many talented singers and actors he’s blessed to work with.

“This is so exciting,” Lewis said. “We’re getting all kinds of national attention. And because we’re so close to New York City, we’ve had nine to 10 Broadway people here to visit.”

Among the visitors were the casting director of “Smash,” and one of theater’s most noted names, Ben Vereen.

Lewis says being so close to the City has made it much easier for his students to get opportunities outside of the university.

And, as challenging as it might seem to put on “The Producers” – a show with many costumes, a lot songs, 45 different wigs and a lot of rapid changes – Lewis says it’s been somewhat of a breeze because of how relaxed his students are.

“They laugh constantly,” Lewis said. “They’ve learned comic timing. They’ve learned pacing. And they’ve got a lot of costume changes. During one song, five people change three times. When they’re as good as they are, it makes it so much easier to do what I do.”

Hurwitz, meanwhile, has had a career that spans Broadway to regional theaters to major concert halls of the United States and parts of Europe.

His acting credits include performances in “Blood Brothers,” “Dream” and “The Phantom of the Opera.”

He’s an acting and voice coach who has taught at Syracuse University and numerous other institutions of higher learning.

In “The Producers,” he’ll lead an orchestra of about 25.

Preview shows are April 18 and 19 at 7 p.m. Actual performances are April 21 at 4 and 8 p.m. and April 22 at 4 p.m. (The April 20 performance is already sold-out).

Preview tickets are $9 for adults and $5 for Rider students – and are only available at the door on the day of the performances. Admission to the actual performance is $20 for adults, $10 for non-Rider students and senior citizens and $5 for Rider students who have a valid ID.

Tickets for the regular performances can be purchased in advance by calling (609) 896-5303 or by email at ticketbooth@rider.edu.

The theater is located at 2083 Lawrenceville Road, Lawrenceville.