Book: Mel Brooks and Thomas Meehan
Music/Lyrics: Mel Brooks
Director: Raz Shaw
Reviewer: Dave Cunningham
The original movie version of The Producers was so outrageously funny it is hard to imagine a musical version could be an improvement. Yet this festive season The Royal Exchange certainly have a damn good try with director Raz Shaw’s staging of the musical.
Producer Max Bialystock (Julius D’Silva) has fallen on hard times; once the toast of Broadway he is reduced to wearing a cardboard belt. He takes inspiration from a chance remark by his accountant Leo Bloom (Stuart Neal) that, as investors in a flop do not expect to see a return on their money, it would be possible to sell more shares in a show that could ever be repaid as long as it could be guaranteed it would fail. With the assistance of Leo Max sets out to produce the worse play possible securing an offensive script and hiring a hopeless director and cast. How could anything go right?
The Producers is in such bad taste there is something to offend everyone. Director Raz Shaw does not take the rough edges off the script but draws out the romantic aspects making the show a celebration of theatre. It is obvious from the opening moments – in which theatre ushers in full uniform and patrons in white tie and tails dance around the stage- that Shaw sees The Producers as a tribute to the power of theatre to charm and dazzle audiences. The show is full of references to the past glories of the world of entertainment – the cherub-faced statuesque Emily-Mae as Ulla enters in a white dress very reminiscent of the one worn by Marilyn Monroe.
Like Mel Brooks (who wrote the lyrics and, along with Thomas Meehan, the book) Shaw does not hesitate to stuff the show with gags in the hope that someone will find them funny. When Leo Bloom fantasises about life as a producer he is surrounded by dancing girls one of whom is distinctly masculine. Considering the potentially offensive nature of the show in terms of sexual politics it might be said to be progressive. When Ulla and Leo dance she takes the lead and, rather than use his role as a producer to seduce starlets, poor Max has to prostitute himself to gain funds for his shows.
Impressively The Producers combines satire with spectacle. Designer Ben Stones goes right over the top with an outrageous fashion parade of theatricals looking like they have stepped out of a bondage shop in Act One and a breathtakingly garish and hilarious dance routine in the second Act. With Stormtroopers in uniforms comprising glitzy jackets and hot pants, bombs raining down and the star of the show entering on a swing from the ceiling the routine is stunning and the final sequence of the dancers forming a certain highly offensive symbol brings the house down.
Julius D’Silva and Stuart Neal have yet to shake off the influence of their famous cinematic predecessors but still manage to find aspects of the characters to make their own. Stuart Neal makes a subtle transformation of Leo Bloom showing how a timid round-shouldered office drone can be inspired to stand tall and take a risk by the glamour of theatre. With the least convincing comb-over since Donald Trump and an oily desperation, Julius D’Silva presents Max Bialystock as a very unconvincing confidence trickster. Charles Brunton is terrific as Roger De Bris the breathless and highly camp director who really wants to act.
Perhaps it is impossible to surpass the original movie but this season The Royal Exchange has definitely produced a hit and one in the best possible taste.
Runs until 26th January 2019 | Image: Johann Persson