Springtime for Hitler — in Tel Aviv?

Bringing "The Producers" to Israel might seem like just another plot twist to Mel Brooks Broadway musical about getting rich off a surefire theatrical flop. But its for real, in Hebrew, and playing to packed houses.

And in a country where the Holocaust is an abiding trauma, swastika armbands, Nazi helmets and the signature song "Springtime for Hitler" are going down as smoothly as they did in Brooks original 1968 movie, the musical he opened on Broadway in 2001 and the 2005 movie version of the musical.

The production, which premiered Jan. 26 at the 920-seat Kameri Theater, is a huge hit. But it was never a sure thing. "Nobody really knew how this would be received in Israel," said Dan Almagor, who translated the show into Hebrew. "We were sure there would be protests, people saying, `How can you show such a thing in Tel Aviv?'"

"The Producers" is about a Broadway impresario, Max Bialystock, who has fallen on hard times. One day an accountant, Leo Bloom, is doing Bialystock's books when he remarks that in certain circumstances, a crooked producer could make more money with a flop than with a hit, simply by raising much more money than he needs for the production, and then, after the inevitable failure of the show, absconding with the leftover cash.

So the two pick a paean to Hitler written by an unrepentant Nazi living in New York City and stage it on Broadway as a musical. But far from failing, it is so exuberantly and hilariously tasteless that it becomes a hit and the perpetrators end up in jail.

On a recent night at the Kameri, in its stunningly designed new home, the audience whooped, roared and applauded at the sight of Itzik Cohen's grotesquely obese Hitler, at Bialystock and Bloom (Israeli stars Shlomo Bar Abba and Dror Keren), and at Liebkind, the helmeted, pigeon-rearing Nazi playwright (Elli Gornstein).

The response is in sharp contrast to the uproar that follows concert performances of the music of Hitler's favorite composer, the anti-Semitic Richard Wagner, and Almagor thinks the reaction to "The Producers" suggests "a certain maturity of Israeli audiences."

Time has worked its way, he says. "There used to be many more survivors, nerves were much more sensitive. ... Today, our best friend in Europe is Germany. Relations are completely normal."

Still, Almagor and director Micah Lewensohn have made a few adjustments. The swastikas and Nazi regalia are less in-your-face than in productions elsewhere, and each time the producers utter the name Hitler they add a familiar Hebrew curse — Yimach shemo vezichro" (may his name and memory be obliterated), followed by "tfu tfu" — a Jewish way of connoting spitting.

"We made changes in order not to outrage people," said Lewensohn. As a director, he once put a 20-foot swastika on the stage when it was artistically justified. "But here I see no reason to insult anyone, when the main objective is to laugh." Besides, he added, no one could mistake Cohen's pudgy, hugely camp Hitler for the real monster. And there have been no apparent complaints from conservatives about the show's cross-dressing gay director Roger DeBris and his equally flamboyant lover, Carmen Ghia.

Still, it's a minefield, no matter how carefully "The Producers" treads. During intermission, Hilia and Aharon Hirsch, an elderly Israeli couple approached by a reporter, were less than thrilled. She lost her entire family to the Holocaust in Poland; he spent World War II in a forced labor camp in Romania. They said they came simply because they like musicals, but had no idea what they were about to see.

"The first quarter was enchanting. It was happy, it was joyful. And the moment the subject of Hitler appeared it began to be an emotional problem," Hilia Hirsch said.

"Its hard to laugh at it. It doesn't pass," said her husband. "It raises memories you don't want to see. The subject itself is portrayed in a very exaggerated way, as total craziness. But because of that craziness, a lot of people lost their lives."

On the other hand, the reviews have been ecstatic, with very little comment on the loaded themes. And on Israeli Internet forums about the show, no one mentions Germany or the Holocaust.

Tom Segev, a leading Israeli scholar of the Holocaust, said he loved the show. "Yes, Hitler is in Tel Aviv and the sky isn't falling," he wrote in the Haaretz newspaper. "No, this doesn't mean that Israeli hearts are coarsened to the memory of the Holocaust; on the contrary — the Holocaust is planted so deep in the components of Israeli identity that almost nothing can get to it."