backstage (2007-03)

Get on the Bus

Actress Elizabeth Pawlowski makes her Southern debut in The Producers

by LaRue Cook

When Elizabeth Pawlowski earned the female lead of Ulla in the off-Broadway national tour of The Producers , her parents had no concept of what the musically inclined actress had done for her career. Just two years removed from Manhattan’s Wagner College, Pawlowski, a New York City native, earned a role, not to mention a lead, in the most successful Broadway production in history.

“My parents really didn’t know much about The Producers , and the movie adaptation just so happened to be out in theaters so I took them so see it,” Pawlowski says.

Somehow her parents had missed the 2001 production that won a record 12 Tony Awards and is still running on Broadway; they were oblivious even to the 1968 film that the musical was based on. The film, written and directed by Mel Brooks, won two Academy Awards and effectively launched Brooks’ acclaimed career.

Yet, even Pawlowski isn’t quick to engage in Producers trivia. Matter of fact, the trip to the movie theater was her first and only glimpse of the role she was to play. Remaining internal, distanced from the success of her predecessors, is precisely how Pawlowski conquers the pressure of her debut national tour and brings vivacity to an otherwise exhausted role. Much like Uma Thurman in the 2005 remake, she takes cues from her instincts as an actress rather than the countless others who have swished their hips playing the voluptuous and naive Swedish secretary.

“I’ve really taken what my director (Nigel West) has given me, and then relied on my ability and instincts as an actor to develop the role,” she says. “I did the background work as an actor on my character, but the director has given me the cues as to how she should act on stage.

“Ulla is such an over-the-top character, it’s really been a challenge and a lot of fun to play. I am the Swedish bombshell with the Swedish accent. I’m not used to playing that type of character, but it’s so well-written and once I put on the costume I just click into her.”

As Brooks later perfected with Blazing Saddles , Young Frankenstein , and High Anxiety , The Producers is entirely hyper-aware of its own humor. The plot centers on failing Broadway producer Max Bialystock and accountant Leo Bloom. Max foots the bill for his plays by beguiling little old ladies out of their checks after they “fool around” in his office. Bloom does an audit and realizes Max made $2,000 off his last production, which actually bombed at the theater. Max has an epiphany: He will milk the old maids for countless dollars more than he needs for a premeditated stinker and pocket the rest.

Leo and Max, both Jewish, hire neo-Nazi scriptwriter Franz Liebkind to write a royal flop, calling it Springtime for Hitler. The musical numbers, penned by Brooks, go something like Don’t be stupid, be a smarty!/ Come and join the Nazi Party! Brooks exploits nearly every social group for the butt of his jokes, from old women to gays. Even the play itself is a commentary on the just-plain-bad musicals of its own industry. The script is so stock full of one-liners that Pawlowski still stumbles upon zingers she had not noticed.

“Brooks doesn’t attack just one area, he covers them all,” she says. “I suggest everyone come see the show twice because it is such a smart and well-written script. There are so many jokes you miss the first time around because there is just joke after joke after joke.”

Pawlowski “fell in love with theater” when she was cast as Cinderella at age 14. Since then she has been in productions of Titanic , Chess and most recently performed in Funny Girl with the Broadway Palm in Arizona. She had never been through the rigors of a national tour, though. She may be a professional on stage, but she is a novice on the bus.

“It’s been very demanding for me physically and vocally,” she says. “I’ve had to find the right ways to be prepared mentally and physically when we drive right into a performance.

“I have the most downtime on the bus, which is when I get most of my sleep. We do as many as eight shows a week, and sometimes we’re traveling two days out of the week. But I’ve loved traveling across the country because I’d never really been anywhere outside New York.”

Her performance Friday night at the Civic Auditorium will be her first in the South, and the writer can not help but ask if she has ever heard a Southern drawl quite like the one on the other end of her cellular phone.

“It’s great. I love it,” Pawlowski says. “It’s really a different way of life everywhere we travel. I don’t know how to explain it. Being from New York, I’m enjoying the slower paced lifestyle, it’s wonderful.”

One last question: Does The Producers ’ “For Mature Audiences” disclaimer mean Bible-belt audiences will find it difficult to watch?

“No. There is nothing new in the play. A few curse words and sexual humor, but no nudity,” Pawlowski says. “We just want families to know this isn’t Beauty and the Beast.

WHAT: The Producers