At the center of the Mel Brooks musical The Producers, behind all the sequins and splashy dance numbers and impossibly huge chorus-girl costumes, is an unlikely friendship. Meek accountant Leo Bloom is hiding inside a small life until theatre producer Max Bialystock swoops in and convinces him to join a wild get-rich-quick scheme.

Max is a scoundrel. He might even be an irredeemable crook. But he’s also desperate to succeed, and that makes him pretty darn funny. How could veteran Central Coast actor Leo Cortez resist the role?

[image: "The Producers" actors]

Max (Leo Cortez) has a little fun with Ulla (Mindy Whitfield) in “The Producers.” Photo by Richard Green.

“He’s scum,” Leo says with affection. “He acknowledges that he will do anything to get his hit. That’s exactly what comedy is based on.”

Audiences might expect that Leo Bloom, with his naïve dreams of being a big Broadway producer, will swiftly be used and thrown aside by Max. Can the nice guy ever win the girl, and can a scam artist ever grow a heart? It’s possible, Leo Cortez says of Max. “He’s never trusted anyone before, and Leo’s the one who trusted him.”

Leo has wanted this juicy role ever since he saw The Producers on Broadway in the early 2000s. Nathan Lane was finishing up his Tony Award-winning run as Max, and Leo dug into his savings to fly east and see him. He immediately started thinking about putting his own stamp on the part. “I don’t want to create a character that everyone’s already seen,” he says. That’s part of the joy of theatre, he adds: even if you’ve already seen a show, each actor gets to inhabit a character in a new way.

The child of migrant field workers, Leo was introduced to theatre as a child, when actors from the Pacific Conservatory Theatre (PCPA) performed You’re A Good Man, Charlie Brown at his school through an outreach program. “The impact it had on me was immediate. … I was completely immersed in the play,” he says.

Leo acted in high school and was accepted into PCPA’s conservatory training program. For the audition, he had to run over from his summer pizza-parlor job still smelling of dough and pepperoni, but he still got in. So did Lorenzo Aragon, who ended up working with The Western Stage for years (he just directed Corridos! Tales of Passion and Revolution and Tortilla Curtain).

Leo attended Webster University in St. Louis and went on to work in the arts in many capacities, including performing, marketing and box office. He worked for organizations including PCPA, The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis, the St. Louis Opera and Milbrook Playhouse in Pennsylvania. Then in the ’80s, Lorenzo offered him a gig designing costumes for a new opera by Stephen Tosh based on A Christmas Carol, at The Western Stage.

[image: Leo Cortez as Santa Ana]

Leo Cortez as Santa Ana in “The San Patricios” at PCPA in 2014.

Since then, Leo has been in residency at The Western Stage, written plays, performed, directed and worked in outreach. Now he’s an artist in residence at PCPA, and runs the very outreach program that once inspired him. “It’s been a long, interesting ride, but I’m glad that the theater company that inspired me to be an artist is the one that has me,” he says.

He’s thrilled to be back in Salinas this fall for The Producers. “I’d forgotten what a wonderful little town it is,” he says. “It’s so filled with amazing people … and so many artists and amazing restaurants. Holy smokes, I’ve gained five pounds. Thank goodness the play calls for that.”

Leo says it’s a treat working with TWS artistic director Jon Selover, who’s directing the show with Diane Jones. “He’s so willing to let the actor do what they do, and then hones them.”

The friendship at the heart of the musical also feels much more than staged, thanks to the chemistry he’s found working with Tim Marquette as Leo Bloom. Early in rehearsals, the two clicked. “I knew, ‘OK, this is going to be so easy,'” Leo Cortez says. “He’s funny and he listens. He’s always listening; that allows him to be really quick on his feet.” Even offstage the two are constantly saying the same thing at the same time. “It’s the running joke with us: Get out of my head!” Leo says, laughing.

[image: Max Bialystock and Leo Bloom]

Max Bialystock (Leo Cortez) loses patience with Leo Bloom (Tim Marquette) as Leo clings to a security blanket. Photo by Richard Green.

As opening night nears on Nov. 14, Leo finds himself thinking about his long connection to The Western Stage and all it contributes to the community, including offering young actors a chance to learn and grow.

“I hope people will come to the show and recognize just how hard The Western Stage works to provide the community with this kind of theatre,” he says. “If every member of the audience who comes in to see the show, if they could buy an extra ticket and bring somebody who’s never been here, that would be one of the best ways they could give back to this theatre company that’s been helping young talent.”

The Producers, with book by Mel Brooks and Thomas Meehan and music & lyrics by Mel Brooks, runs Nov. 14-Dec. 12 in the Mainstage Theater at The Western Stage. Performances are Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. and Sundays at 2. For details, go to westernstage.com/tickets.

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