When audiences arrive at Asheville Community Theatre to see the Mel Brooks’ musical comedy The Producers, they will experience much more than a big, Broadway-style hit show.
The landmark downtown playhouse has been given a major overhaul, which includes such upgrades as new seating, an improved auditorium design, and better lighting and sound. Offstage, there are upgraded dressing rooms, fire alarms and a new roof on all three parts of the building, says ACT Executive Director Susan Harper.
“Our facility is 44 years old and was significantly out of date,” she says. “Our technology was from another century. This was about bringing the theater into the 21st century, both in patron amenities and in technology.”
The Friday, Aug. 18, reopening is a chance to show off the updates and christen the revamped performance space with The Producers. The show is directed by Jerry Crouch, who has led many musicals at ACT over the years, including Fiddler on the Roof, Oklahoma! and Kiss Me Kate.
The storyline of The Producers follows a washed-up theatrical producer who conspires with a high-strung accountant to stage a certain flop to hide the financial irregularities from a previous production. The 1968 movie, written and directed by Brooks, starred Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder. A Broadway version starring Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick opened in 2001 and won 12 Tony awards. There was also a 2005 movie based on that stage production.
For the local show, Crouch has assembled a cast of 27, including 10 performers who are new to ACT. Zachary Landolt stars as Max, the greedy producer; Matthew Harper as Leo, the nervous accountant; and Alex Likens as Ulla, Max’s secretary.
Crouch described The Producers as a natural for him to take on. “It has all the bells and whistles of a big musical comedy,” he says, adding that he was “very honored” to direct the first show in the reopened theater.
Renovation planning launched in 2009, and theater representatives began working with fundraising consultants in 2015.
The theater set a budget of $1.6 million and began fundraising in January 2016. But “we did not start the project until we had pledges to cover what we are calling phase one,” Harper says.
The theater eventually raised $2,170,000. Donations came from generous arts patrons and the Buncombe County Tourism Development Authority, through the Tourism Product Development Fund, which provided a $1 million grant. “We were very humbled and thrilled by the response for our plans,” Harper says.
Perhaps the biggest change the audience will see is the new seating in the redesigned auditorium. The old seats, which were well past their prime and had become “mushy,” have been replaced. The new seating is both comfortable and offers better back support — and includes cup holders for drinks from the concession stand, Harper says. Another big change is the addition of aisles that — although dropping capacity from 393 to 303 — will make it easier for patrons to reach their seats.
In September, the theater will begin fundraising on phase two of the project, which includes a larger black box theater, an education space, improvements to the lobby and concession stand and a change in programming, Harper says. “Right now, we do three musicals and three plays on the main stage. We will do five musicals on the main stage and six plays in the black box.” A date for phase two construction start has not been set, she says, because, “We want to show our donors that we completed phase one on time and on budget. Right now we have to get our stage back up and operational.”
After all, the show must go on. For his part, Crouch is already thinking ahead to next season, when he will direct no-holds-barred comedies 9 to 5 and The Full Monty.
WHAT: The Producers
WHERE: Asheville Community Theater, 35 E. Walnut St., ashevilletheatre.org
WHEN: Friday, Aug. 18-Sunday, Sept. 10. Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 p.m.; Sundays at 2:30 p.m.; Thursdays, Aug. 31 and Sept. 7, at 7:30 p.m. $15-$30