The Royal Exchange takes its Christmas obligations seriously. Last year, they treated us to the delights of a jazzed-up Guys and Dolls and now they are looking to put a smile on everyone’s face with Mel Brooks’ hilarious show, The Producers. And it works wonderfully (most of the time.)
The familiar story of a failing Broadway producer (Max Bialystock) and his mousey accountant (Leo Bloom) is faithfully reproduced in Raz Shaw’s production. Bloom advises Bialystock that it can be more profitable to produce a flop than a hit. The narrative then gets sillier and sillier as the two men select and stage a Neo-Nazi musical which, they confidently believe, will offend everyone and, by means of some creative accounting, make their fortune. From the outset, the writing is full of gems (we learn that a review of Bialystock’s previous show – ‘Hamlet, the Musical’ – concluded with “Everyone ends up dead …. and they were the lucky ones”).
It is all utterly bonkers and Shaw’s production throws everything at it. With full-on vaudeville dance routines (complete with scantily-clad chorus girls), characters lowered from the roof and more glitz than Strictly, it is a visually sumptuous affair and the musical numbers positively explode with energy. The show-stopping climax ‘Springtime for Hitler’ is, predictably, both outrageous and superb. Furthermore, there are just enough changes of pace to keep the whole thing from feeling relentlessly OTT. The rendition of ‘I Wanna Be a Producer’, with a backing group of robotic-faced accountants mechanically operating adding machines while singing ‘unhappy, unhappy’, is gently gorgeous – as is “Till Him’, which oozes with tenderness.
The cast don’t put a foot wrong – everyone seems to be acting their heart out and loving every minute of it. At the centre of it all is a brilliant performance by Julius D’Silva (as Bialystock), whose mobile face – and eyebrows – register an astonishing emotional range, and whose charismatic presence simply fills the stage. Meanwhile, his sidekick, Stuart Neal (as Bloom) – with his facial contortions and athletic responses to continual slapping by one source or another – achieves the not-inconsiderable feat of making me totally forget Gene Wilder (co-star of the 1967 film). Hammed Animashaun also gives a stand-out performance as the camp Director’s assistant, swathed in sparkling pink.
The Producers is shamelessly offensive. Indeed, it was Mel Brooks’ explicit purpose to leave nothing sacred. Although it’s really quite hard not to feel an initial shiver as a giant swastika is gleefully paraded in front of you, the lampooning intention is so crystal clear that it quickly becomes ridiculously funny. Furthermore, if ever there was a time for skewering the far right, this would seem to be that time. What may be less timely, however, is the deep sexism embedded in the narrative. Bialystock’s financial strategy involves winning sponsorship from elderly women he has sex with. And much hilarity comes from the appointment of a buxom Swedish secretary who is – at least initially – unambiguously objectified in the eyes of the two men. Both these aspects of the production are brilliantly done – the elderly women with their zimmer frames are excellent and Emily-Mae’s performance as the secretary is outstanding. And yet, played for laughs and with no attempt at subversion or irony, it all feels distinctly uncomfortable. I simply can’t help but wonder about the appropriateness/sensitivity of staging a show that is predicated on these themes when Harvey Weinstein and #metoo are not yet even distant memories. The Producers really is a glorious, feel-good Christmas show – but I have to confess that my smile faded at some points.
Photographer Johan Persson