Backstage at ‘The Producers’: You can’t believe what goes on behind the scenes at Meroney

Published 12:00 am Friday, March 30, 2018

By Maggie Blackwell

For the Salisbury Post

SALISBURY — Backstage: 30 minutes to opening.

Music director Adrian Smith plays seven notes, “Follow the Yellow Brick Road,” over and over again.

A roomful of actors sing the notes as a scale, voices going up and down.

Young adults play video games as they sing. Colleagues squeeze in on the couch, wearing costumes or street clothes. Other actors stand, touching up their makeup or adjusting hair curlers.

Their ages range from 17 to 60-something.

Finally, the scales segue into actual songs from the musical they’re about to perform. It’s a five-minute warmup to get everyone’s voices in tune.

It’s backstage at “The Producers,” a madcap, whacky, offend-everyone kind of play at the Meroney Theater that has actors literally running behind the curtain to rip off a layer of clothing for the next costume. Then voila! — back onstage for the next song-and-dance number.

The Post had a rare invitation to stay backstage for a production and see what transpires, and boy, was it eye-opening.

If you saw the play, you realize everything happens really fast. In the first scene alone, the ensemble goes from playing evening gown-clad patrons to little old ladies to nuns and candy-stripers, all in the span of four minutes.

The secret? Layers. Ensemble member Robin Rogers has it down to a science.

“We all wear a full body stocking on and we layer,” Rogers says. “Body stocking, then booty shorts for the end of Act II, then black leggings and bloomers. I wear all that under the evening dress in the opening scene. I get the evening dress off and add the candy striper outfit. After that song, I put on the old lady outfit including wig and glasses. I already have on the bloomers to go with it.”

The dressing rooms are about 25 feet from stage right, too far to make it in time, so each actor has claimed a tiny spot of real estate just behind the curtains. They have costumes stacked in order of scenes. A tidy little pile just beside the clothing includes wigs, glasses, flower laurels, shoes, boots and more odd bits.

The women in the show wear nude-colored body stockings so they can change clothing in front of others without sharing too much. The men sport black boxer briefs.

They dash offstage to their particular pile of clothing, strip clothing, throw on clothing, and run back onstage. Cast members who may not be in a given scene assist, handing articles of clothing or lending a steadying hand.

Velcro is king, helping actors make a quick change. Everything from shirt fronts to bow ties are attached with the sticky stuff.

Keilen McNeil has a variety of roles and stays busy changing clothes. One of his favorites is being the choreographer for Roger de Bris, a scene in which he wears purple leotards and a pink cashmere sweater. Another favorite is his newsboy scene. He has a diverse array of costumes and must change quickly.

It’s dark backstage, and actors run tiptoe in their tap shoes to change. They’re often dodging massive wooden sets rolling off the stage or back on. It’s a comic effect not lost on them. A spirit of humor and joie de vivre pervades the cast.

Onstage, a song swells and the actors backstage chime in, adding depth to the chorus that the audience hears.

Cortlyn Kerns plays Ulla, the blonde bombshell with a voice that packs a punch. Cortlyn is only 18.

“The hardest change for me is the courtroom scene from my Rio dress,” Kerns says. “I don’t have time to go to the dressing room, so I set my prisoner clothes right behind the set and change quickly. I have to be on stage alone in the convict costume immediately. The costume people did an amazing job, and I really appreciate how everything came together. “

She adds: “I’m overjoyed to be in the Piedmont Players family, and encourage anyone who loves theater to participate in a future production.”

Andy Abramson, a local attorney and PPT veteran, doesn’t have many costume changes and lends a hand to others as they madly throw clothing on and off.

“I’ve had another incredible, fun experience doing a show at PPT,” Abramson says. “I get to play a very memorable character, and it’s been tons of fun. I’ve definitely been getting plenty of feedback from people at the courthouse, but everyone has had a great sense of humor.”

Abramson plays Carmen Ghia, a simpering assistant to director Roger de Bris.

As Act II progresses, you can feel the tension building a little bit backstage. The song “Springtime for Hitler” is the crux of costumery, and it’s a marathon of throwing things on and off.

The showgirls don crystal-laden bikinis and towering headdresses. Winnie Mikkelson sports bratwurst on her bikini top and a 3-foot bratwurst on her headdress.

“This was definitely the craziest costume I’ve worn to date,” says Mikkelson, a veteran of PPT. “The bratwurst is not so much heavy as unwieldy. I remembered ‘I Love Lucy,’ when Lucy staggered sideways down the stairway because of her huge headdress. Once I knocked the giant pretzel off Ava’s head with my wiener. We were both whisper-laughing so hard we were afraid we’d miss our cue.”

Ava Drexel wore a similar bikini with pretzels. Other bikinis were decorated with giant steins of beer and clocks.

The crystal-laden bikini isn’t the only revealing costume in the show. “These costumes were more revealing than we are used to,” she says, “but I was proud — we all owned it by the end of the run.”

Another endearing scene involves Catawba President Brien Lewis as Franz Liebkind singing to his pigeons in their coop. The stuffed pigeons bob and coo to the song. Unseen by the audience are eight actors, all squeezed in behind the coop and singing the pigeon coos while turning dowels to move the pigeons side-to-side, up and down. It’s a hilarious scene both in front of the stage and behind.

PPT Director Reid Leonard reflected on the play afterward.

“The audience had a great time,” he said. “Backstage, of course, it was pandemonium, thousands and thousands of pieces of costume, but the audience should never know, and they truly seemed to enjoy the play. Getting it all together was a little overwhelming at times, but I doubt if the audience was aware.

“The cast was extraordinary — it wouldn’t have worked without everyone working together. We knew at dress rehearsal that it was quite a challenge, but Ashley and everyone at Eastern Costumes worked hard to add Velcro and make hundreds of pieces easy to put on. They really saved the day for us.”

Leonard added, “If anyone is interested, we always need folks backstage helping with costumes, helping with sets, props, we always need people, and no experience is necessary.”

The next play at the Meroney is Neil Simon’s “Barefoot in the Park,” May 3-6 and 9-12.

Maggie Blackwell lives in Salisbury.