Music and Lyrics: Mel Brooks
Book: Mel Brooks and Thomas Meehan
Director: Matthew White
Reviewer: Selwyn Knight
It’s hard to believe that the original 1968 film of The Producers was Mel Brooks’ first outing as a feature film director. Looking back, the choice of subject matter seems a remarkably confident one for one with, at that time, little reputation within the film industry. Nevertheless, it won an Oscar for best original screenplay and subsequently spawned the Broadway musical.
Max Bialystock (Cory English) is a Broadway producer, down on his luck. His latest extravaganza has flopped. Leo Bloom (Jason Manford) is the ingenuous accountant sent to do his books. An academic aside, that one could make more money from a surefire flop than from a success leads Bialystock to offer Bloom a partnership. Initially Bloom is too nervous to accept, but after returning to the awful office in which he works changes his mind. The partnership is born and they set out to produce a sure-fire flop.
And so they meet Franz Leibkind (Phill Jupitus), a Nazi living in New York who has written a play that forms a love letter to the fuehrer; Roger De Bris (David Bedella) and his assistant Carmen Ghia (Louie Spence), the extravagantly camp director surrounded by an entourage of stereotypical gay characters; and Ulla (Tiffany Graves), the beautiful Swedish actress who captures both men’s hearts when she calls on them to audition. Bialystock has a positive harem of little old ladies happy to invest in return for time with Bialystock. Together they produce Springtime for Hitler, a show so glitzy it threatens to cause a world shortage of glitter by itself. Filled with bad taste camp song-and-dance items praising Hitler, it can’t succeed – can it?
Much of the first half gets its laughs from stock characters as Bialystock and Bloom seek to make their show. The characterisation here is very two-dimensional, with stock gay, Nazi and female characters. However, in the second half the show really takes off and we do see more depth of characterisation in the leading pair as their bromance emerges and they discover the meaning of friendship, illustrated by the rather poignant ‘Till Him.
Undoubtedly, the powerhouse of the production is English’s Max. He dominates the stage whenever he appears. He manages to make Max a sympathetic character, finding the heart of gold underneath the bluster and scheming. He has a fine voice, too. A highlight is his summary of the show so far in the second act – during which an ad lib reference to the show’s late start (as a result of technical issues) brought a spontaneous round of applause. Manford is a revelation as Bloom, Although not especially known as an actor and singer, he too has a fine voice and is light on his feet. His Bloom does, indeed bloom as the show progresses, growing in confidence under his mentor, Max, and even beginning to stand up for himself. Jupitus relishes in the pastiche that is Leibkind, with a deliberately awful accent and dress sense. Bedella’s De Bris savours the campness of his rôle playing it gleefully OTT. Graves’ Ulla is a more three-dimensional character than in the film as she introduces Leo to love. She also delights in the rather stereotypical rôle she plays, bringing out the humour at every turn. Among the principals, Spence is maybe the least strong. Playing a caricature of his own flamboyant character as seen on reality TV, he shows his dance credentials extremely well, but his lisp, worsened by an injury to his tongue aged twelve, obscures his lines – and forms the basis of quite a few obvious and affectionate jokes at his expense. The travelling set is maybe a touch basic, although set changes are generally carried out slickly.
Overall, a very entertaining night out with some superb performances. If you like your comedy with a heart and with some pretty sharp satire on the war thrown in for good measure, then The Producers is for you.
Photo: Manuel Harlan | Runs until: 25th April