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October 27, 2014

Producing "The Producers" - The Play and the Professors


The single biggest production on the history of SVSU theater began with a knock on the door of former president Eric Gilbertson

On the other end of the knock were Ric Roberts, 2000, B.A. and Kevin Simons, the two men charged with the task of putting on a musical big enough and bold enough to be part of the university’s 50th anniversary celebration. Roberts, associate professor of theatre, and Simons, assistant professor of music, had spent months poring over scripts trying to select the perfect show. But no matter how many they went through, they kept coming back to one: “The Producers.”

The only problem was “The Producers” contains some risqué moments and Roberts and Simons weren’t sure how the president would respond. But when the question was ?nally asked, the answer came when Gilbertson started singing one of the famous songs from the show.

He was a fan. That was in fall 2012; Roberts and Simons had about one year to pull together a musical like none other. “The Producers” would require a level of teamwork and collaboration never before seen between their respective departments. For each of them, it meant giving up control — something both admit was a little tough at ?rst.

“I have always been my own musical director so it was very dif?cult to say, ‘Here’s part of my show, good luck!’” Roberts said. “But it worked very well.”

Part of the reason it worked so well is that it allowed Roberts to focus on choreography and blocking while Simons could focus on the most challenging music of any show he’s ever done. “When we started looking at this, we knew the score was impossibly dif?cult,” Simons said, adding that they also had to adjust and update the music for today’s audience.

Given the complexity of the production, the orchestra pit was made up entirely of full- and part-time faculty from the Music Department, while many of the student music majors took roles either onstage or backstage. In the end, it was a unique collaboration between students and staff.

Another challenge was the set, overseen by Thomas Wedge, an adjunct Theatre Department instructor who served as the stage manager.

Wedge was responsible for set changes and coordinating everything behind the scenes. And these weren’t just any regular sets; they were the actual sets and costumes from the Broadway show — costumes worn by such theatre greats as Nathan Lane, Matthew Broderick and Martin Short.

In the end, the ?ve November 2013 performances played to sell-out crowds and standing ovations. None of that, Roberts said, could have been accomplished without the extra efforts of the students in “The Producers.”

“I would get here at 8 a.m.,” Roberts said, “And they’d already be rehearsing; they knew they had to get it right.”

In many ways, that determination in tackling a grand task such as “The Producers” serves as a symbol for the growth and maturation the two departments are experiencing.

When Roberts ?rst came to SVSU as a student, there were seven theatre majors; today the department has more than 60.

The growth, Roberts said, is more than just a physical one. The department has also raised the bar by its selection as host of the regional Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival, a prestigious program that brings together nearly 1,500 theatre students and faculty from the Midwest. SVSU hosted the festival in 2009 and 2010 before the region requested a return to campus in 2013 and again this past January. Roberts said SVSU is the only school he is aware of to host the event four times in six years.

“It’s a tremendous amount of work,” Roberts said, detailing the rigorous selection process to be chosen as host. “But it brings in theatre VIPs from all over the country. And it gives people a chance to see what we do and provides our students a chance to see how they stack up against other schools.”

And it appears SVSU stacks up quite well. In January 2013, theatre major Rusty Myers won the regional Irene Ryan Award at the competition and earned his way to the national competition at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C. At nationals, six scholarships were available to the 16 actors from around the country. Myers won three.

“The festival has given our students opportunities and exposure they normally wouldn’t get,” Roberts said, noting that Myers has received nationwide auditions because of the festival. “For us, it’s almost like a supplementary educational activity we do in conjunction with our B.A. in theatre.”

As for the Music Department, Simons said the number of voice majors has doubled since he arrived on campus in 2005; interest and participation in the choirs — both by music majors and non-music majors — has grown immensely.

The department also has a number of performance outlets in the community, including a chamber ensemble called “The Cardinal Singers” that regularly visits area high schools to work with choirs.

Simons said the visits allow SVSU students to engage with the age group many of them will someday teach, while the high school students get a glimpse of what it’s like to perform in college.

“It’s one thing for me to work with a choir in the community,” said Simons. “It’s another thing for me to take our choir there to work with them.”

The Cardinal Singers are not just a local outreach group, however. Several years ago,

Simons sent out audition tapes of the vocal group, and in March 2012 the ensemble was invited to perform at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C.

“It’s a pretty elite honor to be invited,” Simons said. “We had to go through a selection process and it’s really remarkable for a group that’s been in existence for only a short time to be singing at that level.”