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Brooks cooks onstage

'The Producers' has the comic ability to at once unite and offend

Unless you're deaf, dumb and blind, you're no doubt aware of 'The Producers: The New Mel Brooks Musical.'

The old-fashioned song-and-dance laughathon, adapted from Brooks' cult film 'The Producers,' won a record-breaking 12 Tony Awards in 2001.

Now the touring show is coming to Portland. Jews, gays, little old ladies and cripples had better duck and cover.

The manic play's action turns on down-on-his-luck producer-seducer Max Bialystock and a milquetoast accountant named Leo Bloom. The rubber-faced comic genius Nathan Lane played Max until near nervous collapse on Broadway. The ever-nerdish Matthew Broderick played Leo.

Together, Max and Leo devise a get-rich-quick scheme centered on a surefire theatrical flop called 'Springtime for Hitler.' Guaranteed to offend everyone, the show will fold after the curtain drops on opening night, and they can pocket the investors' cash. But 'Springtime for Hitler,' it turns out, is a smashing success.

Actor Don Stephenson, 38, plays Bloom in the touring production, opposite Lewis J. Stadlen as Bialystock.

''The Producers' is really nothing like the film,' Stephenson says from his Seattle hotel room, where his wife and 1-year-old daughter can be heard rolling around on the floor.

'Mel took his movie and turned it into a complete musical,' Stephenson says. 'He wrote 16 additional songs to the original two or three that were in the movie, and he'd never done that before. Now it's a full-fledged Broadway musical extra-va-ganza!

'The touring production is pretty much identical to what you'd see in the New York show,' Stephenson promises. 'The sets are the same, the dialogue, the lyrics. Nothing's been watered down.'

Why is the retro 'Producers' such a huge hit in the new millennium?

'Mel Brooks is just plain funny,' Stephenson says. 'Anybody who sat around and watched 'Blazing Saddles' knows that. He's an equal opportunity offender, and in offending everybody, he joins everyone together. It's a bonding experience.

'Everyone is thrown in the same boat: black people, old people, blind people, crippled people. Sure, a few people aren't going to get it. If they don't think a gay, tap-dancing Hitler is funny, there's not much you can do to change that.'

The show is a breakneck sendup of the entire history of vaudeville, and the spectacle seems to fly by in what feels like seconds. As far as physical comedy goes, it's as demanding and tiring as it gets, Stephenson says:

'There's a lot of falling, getting slapped around, running into doors and tripping over furniture. It's brutal Ñ and we're doing it eight times a week.'

Stephenson says he's never wanted the part of the more flamboyant dreamer, Max.

'Leo is perfect for me. He's like the surrogate for the audience,' Stephenson says. 'He leads them. He has no showbiz savvy, absolutely no understanding of that kind of life, so he's thrown into this other crazy world. His reactions are the audiences' reactions.'

The feeling that comes from making audiences laugh is beyond words Stephenson says.

'When you get a huge mass of people to respond to you, and you're releasing all this tension out there, it's the ultimate high,' he says. 'They're thinking about things other than current events for a while.'

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