Royal Exchange, Manchester.
5 December 2018 & 3 January 2019.
After the success of Sweeney Todd, Sweet Charity and Guys and Dolls it’s no surprise to see the Royal Exchange programming in another crowd-pleasing musical as their Christmas and New Year show. Mel Brooks’ The Producers, however, might not seem the most obvious choice for the times we find ourselves in.
Most people will know what to expect. Struggling Broadway producer Max Bialystock cooks up a convoluted scheme with his accountant Leo Bloom to make lots of money by staging a big theatrical flop. When the two of them discover the script for Springtime For Hitler (a show so problematic, Bialystock predicts it will “close by page 4”) their plan seems guaranteed to succeed. And yet…
Raz Shaw’s production takes the musical-within-a-musical format and piles on the Broadway razzle dazzle. Designer Ben Stones deploys a blast of shimmer and sparkle at every opportunity, with glamorous silver frocks, stormtroopers in black sequined hot pants and a sudden shower of twinkly red bombs. There’s humour too, with a chorus line of Mrs Mertonesque “little old lady” dancers stomping out a rhythm with their Zimmer frames, and a flock of pigeon puppets with a mustachioed ‘leader’ called Adolf. Alistair David’s choreography ingeniously crams a lot into a relatively tight space with lines of dancers enthusiastically traversing the Exchange’s in-the round stage or circling its edges. Some slick scene changes ensure energy levels never dip as Bialystock and Bloom’s plans fall quickly into place.
And so, to the elephant in the room – or in this case, a whole mincing, goose-stepping, sexually harassing herd of them. To some extent, the play’s period setting provides it with a handy Get Out Of Jail Free card for some of the offence it is about to cause, and Brooks’ script explicitly mocks Hitler and the Third Reich. Shaw also subverts or repurposes some of the show’s trickier moments. In particular, ‘Keep It Gay’ piles on references to contemporary gay culture (including a pup fetish mask and a Drag Race-inspired costume transformation) before finally morphing into a rainbow-flag-festooned Gay Pride conga. However no amount of nods and winks can make some things palatable. As Max and Leo’s glamorous secretary Ulla, Emily-Mae exudes a glorious self-confidence, but that doesn’t make the unsubtle lechery she is subjected to any less jarring.
Raz Shaw claims in the programme notes that there’s a relevance to the show, making a link between its “making fun of a narcissistic despotic director” and the work of late night TV satirists in Trump’s America, but that’s perhaps a contrivance too far. Of course, some serious thought must have gone in to how to approach so many of the issues that the script throws up but that doesn’t mean things feel laboured. If anything, the production’s sheer silliness, along with its shamelessness and good humour, seem to create a safe space of sorts – an unexpected temporary escape from the world of culture wars, twitter spats and instant clapbacks.
It’s a show filled with opportunities for performers to shine and the entire cast throw themselves into it. As Director Roger De Bris and his “common-law assistant” Carmen Ghia, Charles Brunton and Hammed Animashaun are worth the price of a ticket alone as they revel in the campness of their devilishly delicious double act. Julius D’Silva as Max Bialystock and Stuart Neil as Leo Bloom are indefatigable, their winning performances are instrumental in keeping the whole show buoyant right until the end. There’s also a hungry, youthful energy to the high-kicking, ever-smiling ensemble which sits perfectly within a show about making it big on Broadway.
The Producers set itself a high benchmark on its opening night, and it’s always interesting to return to the Exchange to see how a production develops. A month later it still fizzes with energy, and incredibly there’s no sign of the hard-working cast flagging. The only clue to the show’s punishing schedule was an exhausted Zimmer frame falling apart in the hands of its bemused owner. In fact, far from running out of energy, the performers appeared to be genuinely enjoying themselves. So much so, that Hammed Animashaun struggled to keep a straight face at several points.
Second viewings offer a chance to notice more detail or see things you missed originally. This time I was struck by the wonderful use of colour in the design. It’s a genuine feast for the eyes, from small things like the bright green detailing in the accountancy office scene and the flashes of red from the underside of Max’s black cape, through to Carmen Ghia’s arresting pink and print ensemble, and the glittering gold chorus girl outfits. There’s the occasional reminder of the less glitzy side of life on Broadway too – look out for Max’s underpants drying under his desk. While the big showy set-pieces will always grab the attention, there’s more to the choreography than that. When Ulla and Leo share a romantic dance together during ‘That Face’, their different heights are used to clever effect as Emily-Mae takes the lead and gracefully guides her (comparatively) diminutive dance partner around the stage – it’s beautifully done.
Mel Brooks provides a template for favourable reviews of his own show when he depicts Max and Leo spluttering over the unwanted praise for Springtime For Hitler. “It was shocking, insulting and outrageous & I loved every minute of it” they quote one critic as saying. Well that’s one view, and yes, I did enjoy it immensely. But rather than being shocked and insulted, I was moved by the portrayal of Max and Leo’s friendship, touched by Brooks’ wry affection for old-time Broadway and blown away by the over the top enthusiasm of Raz Shaw’s fun-loving cast.
Images by Johan Persson.