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CAPTAIN OF THE 'PRODUCERS' <br> CITY HONORS GRADUATE PLAYS ROLE THAT KEEPS HIM ON HIS TOES

There's Max Bialystock and wimpy Leo Bloom. And Ulla and that Carmen Ghia. But not every role on "The Producers" stage is played out in front of the curtain. When it comes to this musical theater, the dance captain has all the moves.

"I have sort of a mathematical mind that helps me get those kinds of things in my head," said former Buffalonian Alan Bennett. "The whole show is set up in a grid system. In any given number, every person has a place on the stage. I know where the dancers are coming from, where they are going to and what they are holding."

When the touring production of "The Producers" opens Tuesday in Shea's Performing Arts Center for eight performances, Bennett will not only be the troupe's dance captain -- he will also act as a swing, whose job is to fill the shoes of anyone in the ensemble should they fall ill, injured or are called upon to cover a principal role.

"It sort of keeps me on my toes," said the 41-year-old graduate of City Honors High School. "I'm always in rehearsal."

Bennett, by the way, is not the only Buffalo link to this tour production. "The Producers" is presented by a handful of deep pockets, including Harvey Weinstein.

Bennett has been with "The Producers" since the very first show the tour performed in Pittsburgh in 2002. Before that, he toured with "Beauty and the Beast" and "Cats," but he has never performed as a touring professional in his hometown.

"This for me is really exciting because I think Shea's is the only theater in Buffalo I have not performed in," Bennett said from a hotel room in Rochester, where the tour stopped just before Christmas. "I performed at the Jewish Community Center, the Studio Arena, Artpark. I did a lot of community theater. It was always musical theater and it was always dancing."

From the time he was a freshman at City Honors, Bennett was meant to dance. A first-time performer in musical theater, he won the lead role in "Finian's Rainbow." He knew then it was his future. "I knew I wanted to dance," he recalled, "so I auditioned and was accepted at the University at Michigan."

The first summer he was home, Bennett taught dance and drama to children ages 5 to 12 at the Downtown YMCA, an experience he called "great and frustrating" at the same time.

"Musical-theater dance is a lot of things," Bennett explained. "Most contemporary dance styles are ballet-based, so it's jazz, a little ballet, tap, modern dance. I think that being a viable dancer in this business, you have to be able to do a little bit of everything."

On the road, Bennett is on the hunt for sushi, and he has this knack for making a hotel room more like home by adding quirky tokens from his Manhattan apartment -- like the string of Christmas lights that he said he draped over the room's archway.

"The most important thing on the road is to create a situation for yourself and have things with you that make you feel at home," he said. "It's that sort of thing that makes it more comfortable for you. I'm not a big yoga person and I don't meditate, but I take care of myself and my body and I make sure to give myself some fun."

In "Producers," Bennett finds a play that pays homage to great musical theater styles of yesterday. "There's a lot of the old-time feel of "Guys and Dolls,' "Pajama Game' and "Oliver!' It's positive. It's entertainment," he said. "And no one dies."

Besides, it's Mel Brooks at his best: a low-budget comedy that won him an Academy Award in 1968 for Writing, Story and Screenplay. "The Producers" is more a phenomenon that started out as a film starring Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder. That version (and there's a new one that begins shooting in February) was ranked No. 11 on the American Film Institute's list of America's 100 Funniest Movies. The newest version will star Nathan Lane, Matthew Broderick, Uma Thurman - and maybe Will Farrell.

"(Mel Brooks) pokes fun at everyone, and no one goes unscathed," Bennett explained. "If you've never seen a Mel Brooks movie, you have to look at what's going on and go with the ride. It's off-color. We say things in the show that you would not necessarily say because they are not PC, but they're funny. Once you accept what the show is about, it's hysterical."

The stage adaptation eventually won a record-setting 12 Tony awards in 2001, including Best Costume Design, Best Lighting Design, Best Musical and Best Choreography.

The story line is about two men's efforts to produce a theatrical flop, the worst play ever, a tribute to wartime Germany called "Springtime for Hitler." It demands a terrible director, a talentless cast. The scam calls for producer Bialystock (Lewis J. Stadlen in this touring production) and accountant Bloom (Hunter Foster) to raise more money than needed and pocket the difference.

Think chorus girls turned storm troopers and the Rockette perfection that crossed Shea's stage last month becomes a high-stepping memory. The final scene in the first act, for example, features a bevy of septuagenarians on walkers. The dance number during "Little Old Lady Land" becomes particularly challenging.

First, it takes a lot of "cleaning," which means Bennett as dance captain pays particular attention to its staging. The reason is simple: When one dancer must synchronize his steps with others, the potential for a misplaced hand, wrongly tilted head or miscast body multiplies. Add walkers as props and the scene becomes one that is rehearsed more than others.

"I have the ability to sit back and look at the stage, to pick out what's not right," said Bennett. "We have a clean company, so it gets down to nitpicky things. One number that we constantly work on is by Leo (and the accountants): "I Want to Be a Producer.' It's pretty much the only time in the show where everyone - all the show girls - are doing the exact same thing for a long period of time."

It was during the walker scene that Bennett was last injured. Dressed up like an aging lady - with wig and walker - he popped a bicep. The pain was instant, he recalled, but Bennett finished the number, went to the hospital and ended up in a cast.

"Medical science has done so much to keep dancers going," Bennett said. "I've had three knee surgeries and a ruptured bicep and I'm still dancing. I'm in great shape. I don't have any limitations with my body or what I can do. Really, any one of my knee injuries in 1975 would have ended my career. It takes a lot of physical therapy and a lot of taking care of yourself.

"When I was in high school, we all thought we could only dance until we're 35," he said. "Here I am at 41 still dancing. I've not exhausted the realm of possibilities as a performer, or a dancer.

"As I get older, I do develop other skills. My voice is better than it was 20 years ago, but still I rely on the thing that I personally love the most, which is to dance."

"The Producers" opens Tuesday and runs through Jan. 9 in Shea's Performing Arts Center, 646 Main St. Tickets are $27.50 to $67.50 and are available at the box office and through Ticketmaster.

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