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Rising below

The merry irreverence of The Producers

Photo courtesy of Broadway Center

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Roger Ebert enjoyed telling a story about sharing an elevator with Mel Brooks once, not long after the release of Brooks' film The Producers. A woman got in, scowled at Brooks, and announced, "Your film was nothing but vulgar."

"Madam," a miffed Brooks replied, "my film rises below vulgarity."

In some ways, that's the best possible review of The Producers, in both its cinematic and touring musical versions. As with Brooks' Young Frankenstein, knowing the plot in advance won't diminish your enjoyment of the stage adaptation; in fact, it'll probably help. Bombastic Broadway producer Max Bialystock recruits nebbishy accountant Leo Bloom in a scam to bilk theatrical "angels," or investors, out of two million dollars. The plan hinges on creating the worst show Broadway has ever seen, a debacle so godawful it's guaranteed to close before the opening-night popcorn gets cold. Only the most universally offensive script will do, so Bialystock nabs a tribute to the Third Reich entitled Springtime for Hitler. Sing along! "Springtime for Hitler and Germany / Winter for Poland and France ... Don't be stupid, be a smarty, / Come and join the Nazi party!"

The Producers roll into Olympia and Tacoma this weekend. Photo courtesy of Broadway Center
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It should be noted that adoration for the Fuehrer is by no means The Producers' most politically incorrect element. We could, for example, cite directorial advice in the song "Keep It Gay," but let's focus - as keen-eyed audience members most assuredly will - on a Swedish performer named Ulla Swanson. Her audition for Bialystock & Bloom makes judicious use of her arresting topographical features. "When You've Got It," Ulla's song counsels, "Flaunt It," and she does. The number embraces every sexist convention on Broadway, and, as one might ruefully predict, it's a showstopper. The touring version stars Jessica Ernest, a veteran of Young Frankenstein, in the role. She takes the stage with Disney heroine features and a voice to the rafters.

Adding ooh-la-la to Ulla, a leggy line of dancers turn-turn-kick-turn in patterns arranged by Susan Stroman, a Broadway vet whose direction and choreography for The Producers earned her fourth and fifth Tony awards. The show as a whole won a record 12 Tonys and ran for 2502 performances on Broadway. It also broke the record for opening-day ticket sales, so you're best advised to grab tickets for the touring version post haste. Watch for "Prisoners of Love," a musical number for convicts, not to mention Hitler's stirring fanfare, "Heil Myself."

It's no great spoiler to say the audience of Springtime for Hitler laughs uproariously, so the intentional fiasco becomes a scam-threatening smash. This reaction throws Bialystock for a loop but, as producers of The Book of Mormon could gleefully attest, rising above vulgarity is a charming (and lucrative) formula. You've just got to know when to flaunt it.

THE PRODUCERS, 7:30 p.m. March 5, Washington Center for the Performing Arts, 512 Washington St. SE, Olympia, $26-$86, 360.753.8586; also Broadway Center for the Performing Arts, 3 p.m. March 6, Pantages Theater, 901 Broadway, Tacoma, $39-$110, 253.591.5894

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