When he reviewed The Book Of Mormon after its premiere on Broadway, New York Times critic Ben Brantley said, rightly: “…The Book of Mormon” achieves something like a miracle. It both makes fun of and ardently embraces the all-American art form of the inspirational book musical. No Broadway show has so successfully had it both ways since Mel Brooks adapted his film “The Producers” for the stage a decade ago.”
Mel Brooks’ politically incorrect satirical romp, The Producers, allowed for a reclamation of Broadway musical theatre as wickedly funny as well as tuneful, sassy and full of spectacle and colour. Brooks took aim at a wide range of stereotypical Broadway characters, skewered them all, sometimes jaw-droppingly, in a zany jokefest into which was deftly sewn some nods, but no more, at that usually key ingredient of a terrific musical – heart.
It worked. Spectacularly.
The success of The Producers paved the way for others of the same ilk, but while those that followed all have excellent attributes (Hairspray, for instance, boasts a richly melodic score and a narrative bursting with heart) nothing has really come close to replicating the sheer joy Brooks created with The Producers, or the range of varied leading characters, every one of whom gets a moment in the Sun.
Now on tour in the UK is Matthew White’s stylish and impressive revival of The Producers. Given the logistical and budgetary restraints of a touring production that will play at many different venues, White has pulled off something quite remarkable.
Firstly, White has utilised “star” casting assuredly: the stars he has cast, with one exception, can do everything required of them: musically, dramatically and choreographically. Secondly, the design from Paul Farnsworth embraces the shortcomings of budget and multi-venue necessity, turning them into virtues. Thirdly, the cracking ensemble presents a myriad of clever, beautifully judged vignettes in addition to exceeding all the other demands of the piece. Fourthly, White introduces new, fresh stage business which surprises as well as delights: some fine physical comedy as well as nods to other musicals. (In addition to the usual game touring shows provide – “Spot the Understudy” – this one provides “Spot the reference to other Broadway hits” too, with Chorus Line, Gypsy, West Side Story and 42nd Street references all tickling the funny bone in inspired ways). Fifthly, Lee Proud’s nifty, exuberant and very twirly (very) choreography adds zest and interest constantly.
But, perhaps more importantly, the key thing White achieves in this remounting is to overcome two central obstacles to the success of The Producers: the lack of a full sized orchestra and the lack of a big budget (reflected in the size of the ensemble and the limitations on design). At its heart, The Producers is a big, showy musical about, essentially, a little, tawdry show; the contrast in styles and presentation is part of the joy, part of what makes it work. Here, the production is not big or showy, but it pulses with inventiveness and real skill.
Cory English, a veteran of previous productions of The Producers, is a first class Max. He lands all of the jokes, plays the dirty, mischievous, manipulative, money hungry, seasoned King of old Broadway with flair and aplomb. Wry and rapscallion, and with unflagging energy, English’s Max is perennially down and out and glibly shooting the breeze simultaneously. His diction and accent is as perfect as his timing and singing: Betrayed, in the second Act, is quite superb.
English also works seamlessly with Jason Manford’s scaredy cat, accidentally devious, preposterously (and, therefore, endearingly) naïve Leo Bloom. As an exercise in star casting, Manford is an instance that answers the question “Where did we go right?”. He carefully crafts a buffoon with a heart of marshmallow, is very funny (physically and verbally) and nails Leo’s passion for show-business precisely. He sings sweetly and truly, is at ease on stage (hard to do when playing an ill-at-ease character) and, although there is fear, possibly terror, flickering in his eyes, acquits himself well in the nifty footwork department. His Leo blooms as the show progresses, just as he should.
Tiffany Graves is in sensational form as the 11am temptress, Ulla Unpronounceable Surname. She looks terrific from every angle, produces an impeccably cod Swedish accent that is unambiguously hilarious and sings and dances with gusto. It is marvellous to see one of the West End’s talented troupers shining in full star mode. She’s got it and she flaunts it.
The second piece of star casting involves the role of Franz Liebkind, the crazed, deluded Hitler fanatic who lives in New York’s West Village in soiled lederhosen and talks to pigeons; the author of the “worst play” Max and Leo can find to produce as part of their moneymaking scam. Here, Phil Jupitus is an inspired choice.
Like a deranged Bratwurst Behemoth, Jupitus’ Franz is a triumph of dysfunction, hysterical devotion to a lost cause and amiable murderous delusion. He grasps the part with both tusks and shakes every morsel of hilarity from the opportunity. Both his big numbers, but especially Haben Sie gehört das deutsche Band?, are delivered with gusto. I doubt there has ever been a Franz quite like this: Jupitus prefers sullen rage to goofy irascibility and makes it work very well.
The final piece of star casting sees Louie Spence as Carmen Ghia, the common law assistant to the worst director on Broadway, Roger de Bris. Spence makes a spectacular Spence, or perhaps more accurately, a spectacular Spence-playing-Carmen-Ghia. Which is fine if that is what you want; by the second Act, you are acclimatised to the notion and it seems not to jar.
But, actually, it is a serious disappointment. The dynamic between Carmen and Roger only truly works, and the comedy is only truly revealed, if they are working as seamless integrated team. They are a duo; not two separate performances. Without the warmth synchronicity brings, much is lost. That said, Spence adds flashy choreographic bravura to Carmen’s clutchbag of tricks and gets laughs in places and ways no other Carmen has or could.
David Bedella is at his best in the gloriously over-the-top sequence in the second Act where Roger steps in as the campest Hitler in history in the premiere performance of Springtime for Hitler. This is, of course, the moment in the play which is truly a solo moment for Roger. Bedella is very funny and seems most at ease here, away from Spence, where he is undisputedly the star of the moment.
But, in almost all of their other scenes, especially the Keep It Gay scene in Act One, the Roger and Carmen scenes are cold, flat and disconnected. Bedella’s voice, oddly, does not seem suited to the kind of vocal agility Roger should be able to display. There was no sense of camaraderie between Roger and his production team either, with only Jay Webb’s pouty Sabu making an attempt to present a picture of integration and connection.
This peculiar disconnection with the inherent comedy in the piece is reflected again in the old ladies sequence which heralds the end of Act One: Along Came Bialy. It is curiously non-celebratory of the old ladies, relying instead on mental and physical illness and the men-in-frocks trope to score laughs.
But, in an overall sense, these issues don’t matter that much. For the most part, the principal cast are outstanding and the ensemble works tirelessly and expertly throughout the show.
The Springtime For Hitler sequence is beautifully handled and terrifically funny, with costumes, dancing and performances combining into a frenzy of unrestrained sparkly gold, precision dancing and blissful singing: whoever decided to put Webb’s beautifully sung Aryan soloist in glitzy lederhosen was quite inspired.
There are some terrific moments along the way: Tosh Wanogho-Maud, hilarious in Show Boat mode as a disaffected accountant and then breathlessly funny as the very Irish Sergeant O’Houlihan; Rebecca Fennelly and Aimee Hodnett as perky, vocally dynamic usherettes; Aron Wild, blissfully silent as a Prison Guard; the twirling dervish that is Andrew Gordon-Watkins whenever he appears.
Andrew Hilton handles the small band effectively, and once you get used to the lamentable absence of serious strings from the musical support, there is little to complain about from a musical point of view. The singing is spirited and accurate and the tempi and balance consistently right. The inherent charm of Brooks’ tunes is allowed full reign.
This is a great deal of fun at the theatre. As touring shows go, this is a splendid example – funny, fruity and fizzing consistently.