David Johnson has learned how to not break character on stage. It’s a neat trick to have when you’re co-starring in “The Producers,” one of the funniest musicals to come along this century.
Here it is: Don’t watch. Just kidding, although that sometimes is a solid backup plan.
“There are scenes that are so hilarious I have to turn my back,” says Johnson, from Santa Barbara, Calif., where the show played last week.
Seriously, the real answer is this: You have to play your character full-on straight, as in not for laughs.
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“I keep him real,” Johnson says. “I’ve known a few Max Bialystocks in my time. The things they do can be disgusting, but they’re lovable. Max doesn’t know he’s disgusting because he romances old ladies to get money to back his shows. In the end, they show up to defend him, so you know there’s real heart there.”
It helps to remember that the show’s creator, Mel Brooks, based the character on a producer he once worked for who did exactly that to fund his shows.
“The Producers” opened on Broadway in 2001. It’s based on Brooks’ 1968 Oscar winning-movie about a down-on-his-luck theatrical producer who convinces mousy accountant Leo Bloom (Richard Lafleur) to help him oversell shares in a surefire flop and then take off for Rio with the money.
The flop they choose is a tasteless ode to the Fatherland titled “Springtime for Hitler,” that comes complete with a hysterical, goose-stepping show-stopper. Unfortunately “Springtime” is a huge hit, and the investors must be paid.
“The Producers” won 12 Tony Awards, a record that still stands. This Big League Theatricals’ production plays for three shows at the Morrison Center and features that production’s original Tony-winning direction and choreography by Susan Stroman. This is its second time in Boise. The second national tour did an eight-show run in 2004.
At a towering 6-foot-1, Johnson brings a physical prowess to Max, a character that’s been portrayed by titan-like actors Zero Mostel in the film, and Nathan Lane on Broadway.
“You can’t play Max over the top,” Johnson says. “You just have to be over the top.”
Fortunately, Johnson is an actor with his own larger-than-life story.
Johnson’s career launched right out of New York University. He got his first job in the national tour of the 1993 Broadway revival of “She Loves Me,” after the show’s Tony winning-lyricist Sheldon Harnick saw him perform in a showcase. Johnson soon found himself on the road, with a host of other tours and regional productions to follow over the next few years. Then he burned out.
“I was working nonstop,” Johnson says. “My friends were all show-biz people. I was in my twenties. I couldn’t party. I had to be careful about what I ate and go home early so I would have a voice. And I wanted to have a relationship. So, I quit.”
He ended up working in the bar business, and in a few years bought a share in a Chelsea piano bar called Heaven. It was going great until the 9/11 tragedy happened, hampering many businesses. By 2005, he had sold his stake and went back to school to become a nurse.
“I am fascinated at how theatrical health care is,” Johnson says. “The stakes are very high. And it’s a great place to study people, listen and watch.”
But he started missing the stage. So he started doing community theater in New Jersey. Then last year, he saw an ad for an open call for “The Producers.”
“I and 500 other guys showed up,” he says. “I had a really wacky audition. My only goal was to make them laugh. There were eight months of call backs, and I got the lead. It’s like a fairy tale. I remember standing in the wings on opening night and thinking, ‘What the hell am I doing?’ Then the reviews came in, and it’s been great.”
He’s having a blast, he says. He has great on-and-off stage chemistry with his co-star, Lafleur, and he is relishing the role. In fact, he spent his Christmas break doing a production of “White Christmas.”
“I’m back,” he says.
7:30 p.m. Tuesday to Thursday, March 1-3, Morrison Center, 2201 Cesar Chavez Lane, Boise. $37.50-$57.50. Ticketmaster.