I saw the Broadway version of The Producers when the touring company came to Denver four years ago. It was one of those shows you knew you had to praise: The New York critics were so excited about it that dissenting would make you sound like a bad-tempered provincial. And indeed, it was a clever, humorous show, wonderfully well done, with dazzling performances, exquisite costumes, brilliant orchestration and choreography so tight it knocked your socks off — never mind the sheer comic impudence of the big number, "Springtime for Hitler," in which chorus members sported pretzel, sausage and beer-stein headpieces. Though all the acting was good, the image that remains in my mind is of the Swedish bombshell Ulla, played by Charley Izabella King. In a universe that boasted even a modicum of fairness, no one as impossibly tall and beautiful as King would be given dancing, acting and singing talent as well, but she must have somehow seduced the powers-that-be.
How on earth can Boulder's Dinner Theatre, which does not have hundreds of thousands of dollars at its disposal, compete with this? Well, it can't. Not on tech and design, obviously. Not on the slickness of the big showstoppers or on the number of performers on stage. While the choreography at BDT is fun and the dancing and singing pleasing, you don't get the feeling that everyone on the stage trained at the School of American Ballet before going on to study music at Juilliard. Still, the current BDT show has something that was missing from the big touring production: sheer exuberance, an exuberance that in many ways strikes me as closer to Mel Brooks's original impulse. The Producers tells the story of a Broadway producer who realized he could make more money from a flop than a hit and immediately sought out the worst script he could find, a tribute to Adolf Hitler, and gave it a lavish production.
The idea first saw life as a 1968 movie, in which Brooks stuck a fat, garlicky, Jewish thumb right into Hitler's eye. This was a far more audacious thing to do at the time than it is now. You couldn't laugh comfortably at the jokes; your laughter came in startled, broken gusts. Nobody made fun of Hitler in the 1960s. The only permissible way to talk about him was in tones of hushed horror. Brooks taught us that laughing at evil didn't connote acceptance, that mockery was one of the most potent ways conceivable to shrink Der Führer from a figure of towering evil to a posturing little gnome.
With the irrepressible Wayne Kennedy playing producer Max Bialystock and Scott Beyette as his bewildered but eventually ecstatic sidekick, Leo Bloom, the BDT cast puts the raucous, iconoclastic jump right back into the show. I can't tell you how many times I laughed out loud. Brian Jackson comes across as just a bit too healthy and likable for Nazi playwright Franz Liebkind, but in a way his apple-cheeked energy makes him even more appropriately creepy. There's no sight gag older than a guy in drag, but the image of Brian Norber in heels and a slinky dress transcends all stereotype. The guy is about twenty feet tall, as thin and supple as a willow, with a deep, masculine voice. Although he's a little wobbly in the role of campy director Roger Debris on his first entrance — get-up notwithstanding — by the time he's slithered on stage for "Springtime for Hitler," he's lost all inhibition and is pulling out all the stops. Ulla is played by a sweetly smiling Zina Mercil. Director Michael J. Duran has so much talent at his disposal that he's able to deploy BDT stars Leonard E. Barrett, Alicia Dunfee, Joanie Brosseau-Beyette, A.K. Klimpke, Brandon Dill and Shelly Cox-Robie in the chorus, where each gleefully plays a variety of parts, and Dill demonstrates his way with a violin.
On the night I attended, Barrett was so full of vim that he couldn't stop himself from singing as he waited on tables before the performance — not just humming, but treating table after table of diners to splendid, jazz-inflected songs. You can pay all kinds of money to attend a big Broadway production, but I'm pretty sure that Charley Izabella King is never going to come up, lean over your chair and sing her heart out just for you.