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It seems Tel Aviv has been craving the humor of Mel Brooks. Now that his musical The Producers has arrived at the Cameri Theater, Israelis are finally getting a chance to enjoy the much-hyped Broadway production in Hebrew.
Shlomo Barbara takes the lead as the shlocky, down-on-his-luck producer Bialystock, while Dror Keren plays his sidekick and nebbish accountant Leopold Bloom. The two scheme to make money by producing a sure-fire Broadway disaster called Springtime for Hitler - certain to offend just about everyone. But as those familiar with the 1968 film, the Broadway hit, and the film re-make know, Bialystock and Bloom produce an unlikely smash hit that land the hapless pair in trouble in with the law.
American Chet Walker, artistic director of the nonprofit Musical Theater Dance Company, was invited to choreograph the production - his first in Israel. Although the New York-based tale is a very American production, Walker insists The Producers will speak to the Israeli public.
Days before last week's premiere, Walker spoke with The Jerusalem Post during final rehearsals. Observing the stage, he wasn't disturbed that he couldn't understand director Micah Lewensohn's instructions to the actors , nor was he concerned whether Avi Yona (Bambi) Bueno's lighting effects were slightly off center. He was, however, amused by the props, which collapsed every now and then. Parking himself in the fourth row, he mainly paid close attention to the actors' feet.
Walker is a veritable celebrity in the world of choreography. The young looking 51-year-old originally conceived the 1999 Tony-Award-winning musical Fosse which also garnered a handful of other prizes. His other Broadway credits include: Lorelei, The Ambassadors, and four other Bob Fosse musicals. He's danced since the age of five, and was nine when he got his first job - as a dancer on a TV show. He has worked in Japan, Holland, Argentina and Norway. For the past five years he has been director of the Jazz Program at Jacob's Pillow.
"My base is in an airport. I have three homes (New Jersey, Massachusetts, Buenos Aires). I own them, but my base is wherever I am. I'm truly a gypsy and I love that," he said. "Whenever someone says to me they want to do 'da da da' in a place I've never been, I just say yes. I wasn't scared [to come to Israel], but everyone else said 'be careful'. I don't find Israel dangerous. I find this like a neighborhood."
Though he has launched a number of shows, Walker said he doesn't get jaded. "Every time I do a production, it's new. Every new actor, actress... you find new things for them. I get tired, but I don't get tired of going around the world."
FOR WALKER, Israeli musical theater is a new world. Then again, the concept is also new for many Israelis.
"Israeli musical theater was new for me and for many of the actors. You can't rank Israeli musical theater on a world scale," he said. "Every country comes up to where it must to get the job done. The actors have been asked to rise to the task of doing all four things - sing, act, dance, comedy. They surprise themselves that they can do it all. But of course they can do it - that's what they're asked to do."
In addition to choreographing The Producers, Walker also assembled a few moves for the local television series Born to Dance. And though his run here has come to an end, he says he would love to return.
"There's so much here I haven't even touched upon. Israel is new in the world. Yes it's steeped in a lot of history, but Tel Aviv is a relatively new city. Art is new here, although art is old here... It's new and old at the same time. There's much more here to uncover."
"What's so brilliant about most cultures around the world is that English is a second or even first language. I never have communication problems [with foreign casts]," said Walker, who also choreographed The Producers in Buenos Aires last year in Spanish, and has Greek and German performances lined up.
Although his Hebrew vocabulary is just a few words, Walker learned to identify Hebrew sounds by attending local theaters. "I listen to the rhythm. The rhythm of a language is fascinating to me. The rhythm of the Hebrew language is incredible," he explained. With help from Producers translator Dan Almagor and contributing actors (including Itzik Cohen, Idan Alterman, Eli Gorenstein and Hila Ofer), Walker was able to keep the jokes synchronized with his choreography.
"The timing of jokes in this production is just as funny, even if they're different from the original Producers, Walker said.
The original production has become the biggest hit in Broadway history, garnering 12 Tony Awards. Choreographer Susan Stroman also pocketed honors for her original dance steps.
"Mr. Brooks makes so much fun of so many different types of people. He totally takes Hitler and nails him. As Mr. Brooks says, the way you get at your enemy most is by making fun of him. And we make fun of 'Adolf Elizabeth Hitler'... big time," Walker said.
The Cameri Theater said it will stage its local version of The Producers 50 times. Walker called the show a musical that comprises "all of American musical history."
"If you've heard about musicals [but have never seen one, then], this is a real representation of an American musical," said Walker.
The Producers will be performed in Tel Aviv at the Cameri on January 8, 9, 12, 14-18, 22, 25-27, February 14-23, 25-28.