Let’s not even get started on the unlikely ‘film to stage’ saga of The Producers. Suffice to say the following: there have been a substantial number of successful incarnations of the show/film originally written by Mel Brooks; the 2001 Broadway incarnation, despite the phenomenon that is Hamilton, still holds the record for the most wins at the Tony Awards; and it’s almost certainly the only theatrical show anywhere in the world to have featured ‘Sieg Heiling’ pigeons.
There are even those who credit that 2001 production with creating the whole sub-genre of modern musicals that pay tribute to and send up other Broadway musicals, such as Spamalot and Urinetown.
So one question in any reviewer’s head as they approach this new Raz Shaw-directed production is quite likely to be ‘how does it stack up against its illustrious predecessors?’ But a far more important consideration, especially for paying customers, must surely be ‘is it still scandalously funny?’ These days, after all, such relentless offence to all and sundry might be considered not just dated but dangerous.
So let me start off by saying that, yes, of course it is outrageous to stereotype gays, blacks, horny old ladies, pigeons and Broadway producers the way this show so energetically does – and, to be clear, I speak as a relatively privileged white bloke of a certain age. But the result is so completely hilarious and, perversely, good-hearted that I defy anyone not to be falling about with laughter pretty much throughout this brilliant show, even (or especially) if you thought the day would never come when you’d see an audience raising the roof at the choreographed creation of an onstage swastika or ‘Hitler’ being flown onto the set, singing “Heil Me”!
As Shaw rightly points out, “Even though it might not be the obvious Christmas story, the spirit of this show is absolutely right. It feels like a joyous celebration of Broadway, of musicals, and at the heart of it there’s a kind of father-and-son relationship between the two men who ultimately revel in what they do.” Meanwhile, beyond all the captivating, madcap energy of the piece, “There’s a real relevance. It’s making fun of a narcissistic, despotic dictator, so there are plenty of parallels with right now and they’re not parallels you need to shoehorn into the show itself at all.”
Packed with so many set-piece highlights that it’s positively dizzying, leaving the audience buzzing with joy and excitement, the show is also one of the few where having the description ‘ensemble’ applied to so many of the cast isn’t misleading or lazy (which is just about the last description you could apply to anything to do with the show). At the heart of it, though, are Julius D’Silva’s brilliant, huge turn as Max Bialystock, the shameless veteran Broadway producer whose string of resounding flops include Funny Boy, the Hamlet musical, and Stuart Neal’s finely-judged performance as Leo Bloom, the timid accountant whose discovery that, given the right circumstances, a flop could actually be much more lucrative than a hit for its producers sets the show in motion. The catch is that the show must be a guaranteed disaster, so the new, utterly mismatched team of Max and Leo desperately need the worst show ever, directed by the worst director and starring only terrible actors. Their search for the most awful script leads them unerringly to Springtime For Hitler, a musical apology for the Fuhrer penned by his biggest fan, pigeon-fancier Franz Liebkind (Dale Meeks), while the worst director has to be the outrageously camp Roger De Bris (gleefully played by Matilda’s ‘Trunchbull’ Charles Brunton) and his preposterous “common law assistant” Carmen Ghia (Hammed Animashaun). All of this has to be funded by Max’s financially-driven dalliances with many and various rich old ladies but, amid the dubious mayhem, real love does actually, ahem, bloom between Leo and statuesque Swedish secretary/actress Ulla (Emily-Mae).
To make this ‘cranked up to 11’ onslaught of bad taste work at all is quite an achievement but to make it all work quite this brilliantly is a triumph. Not one for the kiddies, maybe, but other than that, highly recommended to pretty much everyone – although neo-Nazis will, hopefully, find much to offend them.
Photos by Johan Persson
The Producers is at the Royal Exchange until January 26, 2019. For more information, click here.