In The Producers, a pair of theatrical ne'er-do-wells plot to make a fortune by staging a surefire flop guaranteed to offend people of all races, creeds and religions.
Desperate Broadway showman Max Bialystock and nerdy accountant Leo Bloom settle on Springtime for Hitler, a Nazi romp with a chorus line of goose-stepping dancers, a swishy Fuehrer, over-the-top gay characters, dumb blonds, sex-crazed little old ladies and the odd F-sharp.
You wouldn't think Mel Brooks' equal-opportunity insulter would be a natural fit at Rainbow Stage -- an open-air oasis of family-friendly fare in Kildonan Park since the 1950s, but there it is, The Producers, opening Friday, July 4, as the middle offering in an expanded three-show season celebrating Rainbow's 60th season.
"It's not the typical Rainbow Stage show," says artistic director Ray Hogg, an understatement if ever there were one. "We have a credo, and it's theatre for all: that includes all tastes and all ages. We wanted to see what the response would be, because it's a great show and holds the record for the most Tonys."
The inclusion of The Producers on the 2014 playlist did ignite a lively internal debate among the members of Rainbow's brain trust. Hogg is sensitive about provoking any Rainbow patron, especially in the Jewish community. He met with a local Holocaust survivor to gauge her opinion.
"She said, 'Hitler is not funny,'" says Hogg, sitting in the empty theatre under the dome during a rehearsal break. "I said, 'The point is that we're mocking Hitler, making a buffoon out of him' and she said, 'Well, that's worthwhile.'"
The idea that the Jewish-American Brooks is using The Producers to dance on Hitler's grave has given theatre-goers the green light to laugh their heads off at the tasteless tuner and its sharp satire. Not only did it win an unprecedented 12 Tony Awards in 2001, it ran for 2,502 performances on Broadway. Brooks likes to say that the show put the comedy back in musical comedy.
Winnipeg actor Simon Miron, who portrays the mousy Leo Bloom, says the 18-member Rainbow cast talked about the many taboos that are shamelessly lampooned.
"It's not about celebrating neo-Nazis or anything of the sort," says the 31-year-old Wolseley resident. "It's about trying to face horror and laugh at it and take all the power away from it."
Last week, Hogg was still working out what provocations -- bits that cross the line into bad taste -- will be dropped from the show. He has gone back and forth many times about the use of swastikas, which are still banned in public in Germany. They will be seen on the arms of dancing Nazis, but whether the symbols gain additional prominence is yet to be determined.
"We try to have a stark real image followed by a complete mockery of that image," says Hogg, who was in the ensemble of The Producers in Mississauga about 15 years ago. "We have the chorus goose-stepping and 'Sieg Heil-ing,' which suddenly morphs into a goofy tap dance. We are constantly playing with this series of frightening images juxtaposed with their mockery."
He is also up in the air about dropping the F-bomb, possibly for the first time in Rainbow's six decades. It is currently part of Max's dialogue, but Hogg is still considering its value.
"I've always found it very shocking, personally. I do understand why it is there at the beginning of the show. Its purpose is to align the audience's expectations that the show they are about to see is outrageous and anything goes," he says.
Miron's Leo is the show's straight man, the mild-mannered Everyman in the eye of the stormy mayhem going on all around him. He's uptight, but has carried a lifelong dream to be a Broadway producer, like his idol Max. Among his many neuroses is that he doesn't like to be touched, which becomes problematic when he falls madly in love with the secretary Ulla, a Swedish bombshell, played by Elodie Gillet.
To prepare Miron, Hogg told everyone in a scene with him to touch him as much as possible. Gillet took particular pleasure in tormenting Miron/Leo.
"Ulla is an expert at getting up in my face," says Miron, who played one of the Jordanaires in Rainbow's season-opener A Closer Walk with Patsy Cline. "It flusters me. The first few times Gillet did it, I was not acting whatsoever. I forgot my lines. I turn around and we're nose to nose and suddenly I was frozen in fear because she's beautiful and her eyeballs are centimetres away. I didn't know what to do. There is real truth to those moments."
During rehearsals, Miron has also been looking on longingly at the rest of the cast having so much fun in the outrageous production numbers, while funnymen like Carson Nattrass -- he's the flamboyantly gay Carmen Ghia -- work up comic shticks to earn even more laughs.
"Every day Carson is coming up with something new, something so ridiculous and so funny," Miron says. "Sometimes I think to myself, 'I wish I could do that stuff or wear some of those ridiculous costumes.'
"There is this wig with a giant bratwurst attached to it. I saw it being combed and prepared during Patsy Cline and I thought, 'Maybe if no one's looking, I'll try that on, because it's beautifully ridiculous.'"