Veteran actor Leo Cortez is having a blast playing the scoundrel Max Bialystock in The Producers

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


“Dustin Hoffman was originally supposed to play WHO?” Trivia factoids from the two Producers movies

Decades before The Producers was one of the hottest shows on Broadway, it was cracking up audiences (and scandalizing quite a few of them) in movie theaters around the world. This story about two scheming theatre producers who plot to make a fortune by staging the most offensive musical in history was first a 1967 film by the same name. Written by Mel Brooks, it was also the first movie he ever directed. Its stars were Gene Wilder and a particularly raucous Zero Mostel.

[image: Mel Brooks in 2010. Photo by Angela George.]

Mel Brooks in 2010. Photo by Angela George.

Turnabout is fair play. After The Producers went to Broadway in 2001, it flew back to the silver screen in a brand-new movie version in 2005. This time the luminaries were the same guys from the 21st-century stage production, Matthew Broderick and Nathan Lane. What a treat to see two of our favorite theater thespians on the big screen.

A great story deserves to be told over and over. Most of us here at The Western Stage have seen both movie versions of The Producers many times and laughed more embarrassingly loudly than we care to admit. (We know many of you have, too. Yes, you.)

If you haven’t seen the Producers movies yet, we recommend checking them out either before or after seeing our version at The Western Stage, which runs Nov. 14-Dec. 12. It’s great fun seeing how a story changes from stage to screen — and back again.

In the meantime, enjoy these factoids from the Internet Movie Database.

Trivia about the 1967 movie:

  • Mel Brooks is an iconic comic actor, writer and director who won the Academy Award for Best Writing, Story and Screenplay for The Producers. But he can’t read music. When he writes songs for movies, he has to hum them into an audio recorder and then have them transcribed. Fortunately, he can write everything else just fine — except for Oscar acceptance speeches, apparently. He was so shocked to win for the 1967 film that he didn’t have a speech prepared.
  • The first day on the Producers set, Brooks was so anxious to direct his first film that instead of starting the day by saying, “Action!” he shouted, “Cut!”
  • In the movie, the two producer characters decide to guarantee a flop by producing a Broadway musical called Springtime for Hitler, a tribute to the Nazi leader. They hire a onetime Nazi named Franz Liebkind to write the show. Originally, Dustin Hoffman was going to play that character. He bowed out when he won a role in a little film called The Graduate.
  • Brooks actually wanted to call the movie Springtime for Hitler. The studio vetoed that plan. Springtime for Mussolini was apparently acceptable to them, though.
  • Zero Mostel’s producer character, Max Bialystock, takes his last name from a Polish city, the one where Brooks’ ancestors came from.
    [image: Zero Mostel in "Fiddler on the Roof"]

    Zero Mostel also played Tevye in “Fiddler on the Roof” on Broadway.

Trivia about the 2005 movie:

  • Playing Max Bialystock, Nathan Lane shaved the top of his head so he would have a more realistic comb-over. Now that’s dedication.
  • Lane has never been accused of being a quiet actor. For one scene where he shouted, “Never put your own money in the show!” his scene partner, Matthew Broderick, wore an earplug during filming.
  • The Swedish bombshell and aspiring actress was played by Uma Thurman (in the 1967 film, the actress was Lee Meredith). For the 2005 version, though, Ulla was nearly played by Nicole Kidman. Ms. Kidman ended up bowing out, citing the pressures of working too much.
  • When Max Bialystock is seen paying visits to different apartments in New York, he pushes several call buttons with names on them. The names include “M. Kaminsky” (Mel Brooks’ birth name) and “A. Bancroft” (a tribute to Anne Bancroft, Brooks’ late wife).

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



New York scenic designer Jordan Janota explores the concept of home in the poignant Tortilla Curtain

While The Western Stage has many regular artists coming back season after season, visiting actors and designers also bring in fresh ideas and perspectives from all over the country.

Tortilla Curtain, for example, features the work of scenic designer Jordan Janota. Based in New York, Jordan creates worlds for theaters far and wide. This year alone he’s handling 18 different set designs. During the summer, he had a new show opening every week: in Missouri, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, New Hampshire.

[image: Jordan Janota headshot]

Jordan Janota.

“When I say it out loud, it’s like, ‘Oh my gosh,'” Jordan said with a laugh.

He found The Western Stage through a personal connection: he went to graduate school with costume designer Suzanne Mann, which means he’s also had a friend to stay with while he’s been here for five weeks working on his first show in California. He says it’s been a great experience, with a few surprises. One was how much of the constructing is done outside.

On his first visit to the shop, Jordan asked without thinking, “‘What happens during snow and rain?’ David Parker (the scene-shop supervisor and resident scenic designer) turned to me and just said: ‘This is California. It doesn’t rain here.'”

Another part of life in California is the dizzying height of real-estate prices—and the accompanying cost of living. Jordan has encountered these issues over and over with Tortilla Curtain, playwright Matthew Spangler’s adaptation of the T.C. Boyle novel. In the play, an undocumented couple from Mexico, Cándido and América, struggle to survive while living in a ravine in Los Angeles. Meanwhile, residents of a nearby gated community worry about their property values and personal safety being affected by immigrants.

When Jordan read the play, he was struck by its speed. The script has 37 scenes, each one just a few pages. “Very quick-moving … like film,” he said. In the middle of all that movement, there’s a solid core: it’s all about home. There’s an ambitious real-estate agent selling the idealized concept of home, an affluent house-husband defending the sanctity of his community, a couple trying to make a home in the rough.

In one scene, Cándido finds shelter for himself and América in a contractor’s shed stacked with wooden pallets. Jordan took the concept and built his set from pallets. He went to industrial sites, seeking out the oldest, most distressed wood. “We wanted as much texture and authenticity as possible,” he said, especially since audiences are very close to the set in the intimate Studio Theater.

The set also incorporates sand, a flagpole, a 465-pound boulder that Jordan found at a landscaping business in Prunedale, and countless real-estate fliers tacked to the pallet walls of the set. Those grew out of a scene where América speaks vividly of the grand house she dreams of living in. Jordan liked the contrast, “the reality of the pallets versus the dream of all of the real-estate ads around her.”

A photo of the Tortilla Curtain set taken by Jordan Janota.

A photo of the Tortilla Curtain set taken by Jordan Janota.

After Tortilla Curtain, it’s back to the East Coast, where Jordan recently designed the set for a production of Carrie: The Musical in Pennsylvania. That show opened while Jordan was at The Western Stage. Fortunately, Jordan’s husband, Evan Hill, is also a scenic designer, so he could jump in and handle tech week for Carrie.

Jordan’s next project is the play Radium Girls being presented at a girls’ high school in New Jersey. The script focuses on young women who worked in a watch factory in the early years of the 20th century and suffered radium poisoning as a result. A group of the women became pioneering labor activists. “The factory was right down the street from this school. It’s such a great thing to be teaching,” Jordan says.

Similarly, he hopes Tortilla Curtain proves to be full of lessons and insight for audiences at The Western Stage. “It’s such an interesting show that deals with a lot of modern conflicts we’re experiencing now,” he said. “This is the show in the season that will get audiences talking.”

Tortilla Curtain, adapted by Matthew Spangler from the novel by T.C. Boyle, runs Oct. 24-Nov. 14 in the Studio Theater at The Western Stage. Performances are Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. and Sundays at 2. For details, go to


Playwright Matthew Spangler tells us how Tortilla Curtain made it from the page to The Western Stage

The Tortilla Curtain by T.C. Boyle is a big novel in many ways. Published with great fanfare, the 1995 book is a powerful exploration of immigration, race and class that focuses on two undocumented Mexican immigrants who interact dramatically with a wealthy gated Los Angeles community. It’s a weighty statement that runs more than 300 pages.

Playwright Matthew Spangler read it, loved it, and then had an equally weighty task: how to bring this novel to the stage? He would have to remove details, cut dialogue, and generally pare down the plot.

Matthew Spangler.

Matthew Spangler.

Fortunately, theatrical adaptations have always been a labor of love for the Bay Area writer. His adaptation of the Khaled Hosseini novel The Kite Runner, which was produced by the San Jose Repertory Theatre and recently toured in the United Kingdom, has won wide acclaim. He has also adapted writings by John Steinbeck, James Joyce, John Cheever, Ernest Hemingway, Thomas Wolfe, and many other authors.

Many of the stories deal with newcomers to a country, which is why Spangler says his work, broadly speaking, “sits at the intersection of adaptation and immigration.” Besides teaching performance studies at San Jose State, he also leads an institute on theater and immigration funded by the National Endowment of the Humanities.

Spangler’s work also combines two of his great loves: narrative fiction and theatre.

“The form of art that I’m most drawn to is reading prose,” he said, adding: “I find practicing that a little lonely. As an artist, I really like the theatre because theater’s so social. … Theatre is one of those unique forms of art that happens live. The communion between audience and artist is particular to the theatre.”

To create an adaptation, Spangler must get close to the original writing. “It takes maybe nine months to write the first draft of a script,” he said. He analyzes the work, seeing what parts would translate best to the stage, and seeking to stay true to the author even as he makes changes. Sometimes those changes are tough.

The Tortilla Curtain—which he renamed Tortilla Curtain in his version—is a good example. The book is long, but the play just can’t be. In fact, it’s only about 90 minutes, with no intermission. Cuts were necessary to preserve the book’s rapid pace from dramatic event to event.

“If you’re won over by the magic of the book, you kind of fall into it and it becomes a roller coaster that takes you along,” Spangler said. “If you are true to all the elements of the novel, you’re going to have a three-hour show, and you’re going to miss the roller coaster. In a strange way, you have to take out some of the plot in order to stay true to the plot on stage.”

The playwright’s notes in his script mirror this pacing. Nearly all the transitions, for instance, “should happen as quickly as possible, with the subsequent scene starting on the heels of the previous one, and in some cases, even before the actors have cleared the playing space.”

It’s a fast-paced story with many challenges for both playwright and theater company. Without giving away plot twists, suffice it to say that Mother Nature throws in lots of drama.

How does Spangler know what to cut? “I suppose how you make those decisions is really one of intuition,” he said thoughtfully. “Maybe for all playwrights, that first draft is almost always overwritten. The challenge is figuring out what to take out so that the audience is never ahead of the story. You don’t want them to know what is going to happen.”

Tortilla Curtain has brought many great rewards for Spangler. For one, the two main characters are compelling: Cándido, the immigrant determined to make a new life for himself and his pregnant partner América despite numerous hazards; and Delaney, the affluent journalist who lives in the gated community near where Cándido and América are sleeping in a ravine.

Spangler is fascinated by Delaney’s journey from seemingly reasonable person to near-vigilante. “How does this happen?” he asked.

Meanwhile, Cándido, ravenous and desperate, keeps soldiering on. “He’s one of the most beautiful characters I’ve ever read in a book,” Spangler said.

América (Elizabeth Murillo) cares for Cándido (Adam Saucedo) after he is injured in a car accident. Photo by Richard Green.

América (Elizabeth Murillo) cares for Cándido (Adam Saucedo) after he is hurt in a car accident. Photo by Richard Green.

T.C. Boyle wrote the book in the aftermath of California’s Proposition 187, a ballot initiative that forbade undocumented immigrants from using public education, health care and other public services. The controversial 1994 initiative was approved by voters but later ruled unconstitutional.

“The book never comments on 187 but very much is responding to that context,” Spangler said. The play is set in 1995, and while Spangler says he believes the dialogue on immigration has become more progressive in California since then, nationwide it’s still very much the same.

As examples, Spangler mentions moments in the play when Cándido and América are injured or victims of crime but are afraid to seek medical attention or law-enforcement help. “When you have 11 million undocumented immigrants who don’t have access to the laws, then you essentially open your society to a number of civil-rights abuses.”

Spangler is very pleased to bring his message and play to The Western Stage. “I can think of few companies better situated and better located to do this show,” he said.

It’s especially meaningful having his work presented at a college where there are many budding theatre professionals and writers. When asked what advice he would give to an aspiring playwright, Spangler said immediately: “Do it.”

In today’s digital world, Spangler believes we need live theater even more because of how much time everyone spends on screens.

“The theatre is the best art form for cultivating face-to-face moments,” he said.

Tortilla Curtain, adapted by Matthew Spangler from the novel by T.C. Boyle, runs Oct. 24-Nov. 14 in the Studio Theater at The Western Stage. Performances are Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. and Sundays at 2. For details, go to


Behind the scenes of The Liar with director Dennis Beasley

This summer at The Western Stage, we enjoyed Dennis Beasley’s heartfelt performance as The Baker in the mainstage musical Into the Woods. Now, he’s directing The Liar, an updated French farce that plays in the Studio Theatre from Sept. 18 through Oct. 4. In this post, Dennis tells us about the fun he and his cast are having with this clever, fast-paced adaptation by David Ives.

Dennis Beasley.

Dennis Beasley.

I was recently reminded of the old adage “Death is easy; comedy is hard.” After working on The Liar, I couldn’t agree more! The big difference between comedy and death, I suspect, is that comedy is a whole lot more fun.

Certainly working on The Liar has been a labor of love and, while we have been laboring, we have been laughing. I can’t count the number of times where someone has literally rolled on the floor laughing. It is particularly fun for me when, talking with the actors, I get to start my sentence with, “Wouldn’t it be funny if…” or “would it be funnier if you…” And The Liar gives us plenty of opportunities to find the funny.

The play is funny in many different ways. Just listening to the verse written in iambic pentameter and rhymed couplets is enough to keep us in stitches. David Ives is a master of finding ways to make the rhymes work and he is willing to stretch the English language to do it.

For instance, if you soften the “t” sound in “rattle,” it rhymes with “paddle” or, if you change the first vowel a bit, “buried” rhymes with “married.”  He goes even farther to get some of his rhymes. One of my favorites is coupling “switcheroo” with “pitched her woo.” Mr. Ives also has a big vocabulary (and perhaps a big thesaurus) as he sprinkles in words that are not terribly common to complete a rhyme.  When was the last time you used “emolument” in a sentence? We had to look it up.


Dorante (Aaron Kitchin, right) has a little fun with rival Alcippe (Nick Mandracchia) in “The Liar.” Photo by Richard Green.

Of course, the verse is not the only part of The Liar where we derive humor. Mr. Ives has also incorporated into the story many classic comic bits, or lazzi, as we call them in the theatre. I asked the cast to watch all kinds of old comedy to get an idea on how to approach this play. I recommended watching old comic bits by Abbott and Costello, The Three Stooges, and Bob Hope as well as some “newer” comedies like The Princess Bride and The Birdcage to see how master comics handle their business.

I watched them all again myself and I couldn’t help thinking to myself that this was a wonderful way to prepare to do my “job.” We in the theatre are sometimes very lucky.

Producing a show like The Liar is always a lot of work for all involved. From the actors to the designers to the wonderful artisans in the costume and scene shops, countless hours have been put in to bring this show to fruition. Upon reflection, I have to say that I have worked hard, too, but even in the throes of rehearsal, I often forget that I am working. That is the joy of working on a hysterical play by a great playwright at a nurturing company with talented and hard-working colleagues.

I hope that my joy comes across in this production of The Liar.  And even though death is easier than comedy, I hope I get to do the latter again before I am visited by the former.

The Liar, adapted by David Ives from the 17th-century Pierre Corneille comedy, runs Sept. 18-Oct. 4 in the Studio Theater at The Western Stage. Performances are Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. and Sundays at 2. For details, go to

© Copyright The Western Stage - Hartnell College: 411 Central Ave., Salinas, CA 93901 | BOX OFFICE: (831) 755-6816 | Site by Groupofminds