The Producers, The New Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham 20 April 2015
There was a time in the mid-70s when Mel Brooks could do no wrong. Blazing Saddles, the spoof western he co-wrote and directed, had been a sensational success, and its infamous campfire scene, where the effect of eating all those beans finally catches up with the cowpokes, epitomises his approach to comedy: irreverent, vulgar, and just plain silly. The international renown of the film sparked interest in his earlier work, and university film societies, would-be movie buffs and devotees of the late-night cinema slot on BBC2 took The Twelve Chairs and his first film,The Producers, to their collective hearts.
The Producers, starring Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder, was an hilarious satire aimed squarely at the tawdry glamour of showbiz in general and musical theatre in particular. The plot is simple: the two eponymous producers hatch a plan to mount a Broadway show so abominable that it is bound to close after only one performance enabling them to abscond with the bulk of their backers’ cash.
Brooks was persuaded to transform the Oscar-winning1968 film into a stage musical in the late 1990s and it opened on Broadway in 2001. A success in its own right, it garnered a record twelve Tony awards and was itself made into a film in 2005, with Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick re-creating their stage roles.
Which brings me to the present UK tour. The show undoubtedly has both a theatrical pedigree and an enviable reputation, and both are well-served this time around: you really can’t fault the talent on the stage. Cory English inhabits the role of Max Bialystock, the wily satyr whose reputation as the King of Broadway is fading fast after yet another flop, and his performance is impeccable, especially in “Betrayed”, a number late in the second act in which he runs through the whole show in summary, including a few seconds silent pause for the intermission. This is a tour de force and his delivery is an object lesson in dynamics and diction. His scenes with Jason Manford’s Leo Bloom, timid accountant turned timid impresario, are also well realised, and provide some of the best-timed comedy in the show.
Manford himself is the real revelation, however. His Leo Bloom is a thoroughly-rounded creation and contains no personality traits of Jason Manford the stand-up comic. And who knew he had such a beautiful singing voice? Also worthy of special mention are David Bedella, whose turn as the uber-camp director Roger De Bris is nigh-on perfect, and Tiffany Graves as Swedish secretary and love-interest Ulla. Her solo number “When you’ve got it, flaunt it” needs no further comment, except to say that she has and she does.
Every performer on the stage is going at it full-tilt and the live band in the pit play their hearts out; this production is so full on it practically gives you radiation burn. And yet I found it difficult to subscribe to the rapturous reception it received the night I saw it. While I could admire the skill, the craft and the commitment, I was, truth to tell, a little under-whelmed. Having mulled it over, however, I think I know why.
In the 1968 movie, “Springtime for Hitler” is the only musical number and comes at a climatic point. It is so high camp, in such bad taste and so unexpected that it’s hilarious. In its present iteration, by the time we reach this point in the plot we’ve already seen more mischievously fey bad taste than one show could reasonably be expected to contain, nowhere more evidently than in Roger’s number “Keep It Gay”. Even if you are one of those people who are reduced to tears of helpless laughter by songs that variously re-enforce stereotypes of effeminate homosexuals and expatriate Nazi sympathisers (and there were more than a few present in the audience I was with), this embarrassment of riches takes some of the sting out of what should be a knock-’em-dead, stand-out showstopper. The fault, then,if there is one, isn’t with the cast, the staging or the direction; it’s inherent in a show that is trying to be “on” all the time.
So I accept that I’m in a minority, but despite some brilliant performances, ultimately The Producers was, for me, less than the sum of its not inconsiderable parts.