American Stage, Matthew McGee bring “The Producers” to the park

By : Ryan Williams-Jent
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Being out in the park is the perfect place to do this,” Tampa Bay fan-favorite actor Matthew McGee says of “The Producers,” American Stage’s latest outdoor production. “American Stage can make gigantic sets for this huge show, they can have a large cast… and you can also make it available for lots of people to see.”

McGee plays Max Bialystock, a devious lead in Mel Brooks’ Oscar-winning 1967 film, Tony-winning 2001 musical and subsequent 2005 film of the same name. The cult classic, described as an “equal opportunity offender,” follows Bialystock and fellow-schemer Leo Bloom as they produce the most notorious flop in history, bilking their backers out of millions of dollars.

Watermark spoke with McGee during the show’s run to talk about American Stage in the Park, making America laugh again and playing a role “made famous by Ms. Nathan Lane.”

WATERMARK: You’ve just wrapped several productions in Sarasota. What was it like to add “The Producers” to the mix?

MATTHEW MCGEE: Wonderful. I knew for a while I’d be playing the role but when you’re doing a lot of projects you kind of go piece to piece because your brain can only hold so much. I opened [the script] and I said well I know this is a big part but I think I’ve got this.

And then I started looking at it and went oh my god, this role never leaves the stage; this role never leaves the scene. And the times he’s not on stage they’re talking about him! There was a bit of panic and a little bit of stress, so I really put myself into it completely while finishing up other things… and I devoted myself to getting “The Producers” off the ground and on its feet.

It’s been really fun but it’s the most exhausting role I’ve ever played. I’m the same age as Nathan Lane when he played the role back in 2001, so I sit back and think “oh my god, we’re both not spring chickens but we’re jumping around on the stage and playing this wild, sort of larger-than-life character who has tons of songs, dancing and lots of comedy.”

He’s s such a big character. What’s it been like bringing him to life?

I have to tell you I have been super lucky to play the roles of other LGBT performers that I look up to. In the Park I’ve played [“The Rocky Horror Picture Show’s”] Dr. Frank N. Furter, and I wouldn’t necessarily say Tim Curry is LGBT, but he’s certainly an honorary member; I played [“Hairspray’s”] Edna Turnblad, a role made famous by Divine and Harvey Fierstein, and now I’m playing a role made famous by the great Ms. Nathan Lane!

There has always been a lot of responsibility to play these characters. I found that playing Max Bialystock was not necessarily a challenge to get into the character’s skin, there’s so much great stuff on the page. It was nice to play a man in the show [and not] have to get into all the makeup.

We’ve had a really great experience working on this show because the director Rye Mullis, at the beginning he said people have seen “The Producers,” people know a lot about it; we live in sort of a politically-sensitive time, so you might read some of this and go “wow, how’s this gonna go over now?”

He said “we’re gonna let the comedy sort of happen on its own and we’re really gonna work hard to make sure people get the whole story behind these two characters [and the] unlikely friendship that is created.”

Even though they get in trouble and get caught, these two guys are ultimately better for having known one another, and they pushed that story. He was right: the comedy sort of just fell into place because we were telling the story so well.

Have there been any challenges with Max?

There was no real difficulty or challenge in playing the role, at least to understand the character. I think the big thing that’s the most exhausting is just doing it. It’s a two-and-a-half-hour show; there’s a lot of dialogue, a lot of songs, a lot of scene work, a lot of choreography.

It’s really about keeping up your stamina, keeping it all straight and keeping it moving along. I think that’s probably been the hardest thing, and add to it that we’re doing it outside. I can honestly say that Nathan Lane was probably sweaty doing this show in an air-conditioned theater… you can’t even imagine what I’m feeling like doing it outside in spring in Florida.

I need to have a towel [and] I need to have water constantly during the show to stay hydrated. There are a lot of new and interesting challenges to being out in the park and playing a role as big as Max. Dare I say maybe it’s the biggest thing I’ve ever done?

Why do you think it translates well to the park?

It’s a very broad, very big show that’s super funny. Being out in the park is kind of the perfect place to do this. It gives American Stage a spot where they can make gigantic sets for this huge show, they can have a large cast… and you can also make it available for lots of people to see. So far every day I’m hearing we’re pretty full-up in the park. I think there’s something to it.

I also have to say, we sort of live in a time that we’re super divided. Everything today is about people being offended or the politics about everything and “Producers” is an opportunity for us all to laugh at how absurd life is, at each other and at stereotypes. So I think it kind of comes at the best possible time to rediscover what makes the show really great.

I have seen people from all walks of life; all sitting out there under the stars, all laughing at the same sort of ridiculous situations that Max Bialystock and Leo Bloom get themselves into.

Do you think that’s why theatre is so important now?

I do. Of course there are a lot of plays that make you think or understand certain concepts, or plays that expose social injustices, but sometimes people just wanna go to the theater and have a laugh. “The Producers” does exactly that.

I think Mel Brooks has always known how to make America laugh again. I think that’s exactly what we’re doing in a time where if you turn on the news, it’s not always so great. Watching these two men lose is so much fun, because in our world now con men seem to be winning. It’s fun to watch these two guys think they have it all figured out only to have it all come crashing down.

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