9th November 2017
Z Arts Centre
Type of Production
John G Barry
Author: David Slater
I have to declare at the outset that as far as I’m concerned, Mel Brooks’ gem of a film ‘The Producers’ is a comic masterpiece. As Peter Sellers so neatly put it when the film was released (initially to a less than enthusiastic response) ‘...it is the essence of all great comedy combined in a single motion picture!’ I happen to think that the film is a very important cultural milestone in the history of comedy and its ability to say the unsayable opens up an exploration of some important and interesting ideas. The musical version takes the film as its blueprint and from it, fashions a slightly different take on the outrageous goings-on but which still takes in all of the film’s jaw-dropping bad taste and throws some more targets into the mix for good measure. Never having seen the musical version of ‘The Producers’, I was conscious of trying not to judge this production against the original film (which I adore) and treat it as a different beast altogether. Any performance from the talented team at SMAOS is always a treat and this was no exception: as an introduction to a show which was new to me, I can’t imagine being treated to a better production.
The show centres around the unscrupulous Max Bialystock and his twisted scheme to make a fortune by producing a flop; finding the worst cast and the worst director for the world’s most wildly inappropriate musical, ‘Springtime for Hitler’. To my surprise, I found the musical numbers were pleasantly old fashioned and the show had a very traditional feel, all of which worked well as a framework for the cleverly transgressive nature of the narrative and the themes to work against. All of the familiar elements of the original film were present and I was surprised to hear at the interval that ‘The Producers’ isn’t considered to be much of a ‘bums on seats’ kind of show and not a great seller. Hopefully, this rather good production will help to change that.
Chris Addington was a great ball of energy as Max Bialystock, really throwing himself into the role and obviously loved every minute of being Max. I’m not sure he was quite as sleazy or grubby a Max as I would have liked - and there were times when I thought that there was a tendency to fire out the dialogue without really thinking about what he was saying - but this was more than made up for with his musical numbers as Chris really impressed here with some great vocals and clearly loved every moment on stage. ‘Betrayed’ in particular was very well performed indeed and throughout the show, he was full of life. Max’s relationship with Leo Bloom was well realised too, with Jack Hawkins making a fine job of bringing the nervous accountant to life. Jack oozed professionalism on stage and if there was rather too much eye-rolling and mugging and a few too many tics, twitches, befuddled looks and angst ridden gestures for my liking, it was obvious that he was very much the audience’s favourite of the evening. ‘I Want to be a Producer’ was masterfully performed and he had the audience in the palm of his hand throughout the show with a very strong performance. Jack’s strong vocals were the equal of Chris’s and they made for a solid pairing.
Ian Bennett impressed as a very forceful Franz, the loopy Nazi, giving a very strong performance and adding a great deal of strength and vigour to the character. Phillipa Shellard was a wonderful Ulla and powered her way through ‘When You’ve Got it, Flaunt it’ quite majestically. This central quartet made for a very strong team and kept the pace of the show motoring along with unflaggingly confident performances.
Zoe Hulme twinkled as ‘Hold Me - Touch Me’, the most prominent of Max’s harem of geriatrics and the rest of the OAPs did a great job with a super routine at the end of the first act (ingenious use of Zimmer frames!) The De Bris household came to life with all the flouncing camp needed to cast the necessary glitter across the stage (figuratively speaking) as Roger’s entourage were all painted in rainbow colours and with a very broad brush. Tom Farnworth minced magnificently as Carmen Ghia; Andrew Ryder was an adorable Bryan; Kallum Edwards twinkled as Kevin; Tom Kuznair pranced quite marvellously as Scott and Louise Hussey was simply wonderful as Shirley, the token lesbian. ‘Keep it Gay’ acts as a summation of the bad taste project in hand and also manages to add a few more cheerily offensive ingredients in to the show’s withering opinion of musical theatre. Unfortunately, I did think Dave Barker’s Roger De Bris was a little underpowered and was comprehensively out-camped by the rest of his theatrical circle as a result. I would have liked to have seen a little more brassy self confidence from Roger and Dave’s interpretation was a little too delicate for me. In fine voice as always, Chloe Ireson and Stephanie Niland made a strong impression as the Usherettes, opening the show in fine style.
The whole company really impressed when called upon to present a spectacle of music and movement. One of the interesting things about this stage musical version of the tale is the way that the sardonic attitude to the world of bubbly Broadway nonsense isn’t compromised by the rather old fashioned, traditional feel of the music and this was carried through into the way routines and movement were staged. ‘I Wanna be a Producer’, ‘Along Came Bialy’, ‘Keep it Gay’, ‘Prisoners of Love’ and the wonderful ‘Springtime for Hitler’ we’re all very well done indeed and retained the necessary feel of fond pastiche. There is a thread running through many of Mel Brooks’ films which references the ridiculous and comical nature of giving a superficial musical treatment to themes which could be considered controversial. ‘Blazing Saddles’ has the wonderful ‘French Mistake’, ‘The History of the World Part One’ goes TV gameshow glitzy with ‘The Inquisition’ and ‘The Producers’ is one long love/hate relationship with musical theatre of a certain vintage. This production of the musical seemed to grasp this important point and the whole cast are to be congratulated for adopting the correct approach in bringing the show to life.
John G Barry’s orchestra provided a sumptuous sound throughout the evening and really came to life with the big company numbers to create an impressive overall effect. Costumes were of an excellent standard across the board and technical support was first class. There were occasions when I would have preferred a less minimalistic take on scenery (and sometimes, scene changes were a little untidy) but the swastika laden ‘Springtime for Hitler’ looked the part quite magnificently. The back projections to establish different locations throughout the show worked well for the most part but a little mix-up towards the end of the show (a prison slide shown out of sequence) did rather give the game away as to Max’s upcoming fate in jail!
I wasn’t especially taken with Leo and Ulla’s romance and their escape bid to Rio - it rather undermined the ‘Max/Leo’ dynamic for me - but as this is a fault of the show itself rather than this production of it, I can hardly complain! The Hitler audition sequence at the beginning of the second act seemed a little laboured initially but Ian Bennett worked a wonderful kind of magic with ‘Haben Sie Gehört das Deutsche Band?’ which was quite wonderful. I would have preferred more sassy theatricality from Roger De Bris when he stepped into Hitler’s jackboots but the ‘Springtime for Hitler’ routine more than lived up to the audience’s expectations.
Overall, this was a polished production which did a great job of bringing an explosion of bad taste to the stage and everyone involved clearly had a great time in making it come to life and throwing it over the footlights. My thanks to everyone at SMAOS for a very warm welcome and a great evening’s entertainment.