Heil fellow well met

Springtime for Hitler

The Producers

The New Alexandra Theatre

****

Mel Brooks’s The Producers has been through several incarnations – film, stage play, musical – and in each instance has attracted pretty mixed responses from the critics. Some of the early notices were carping, even venomous. Variety was one of those which, happily, came out in favour.

Perhaps it did not matter, as Brooks went on to carry off an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay. The dramas’s fortunes, against the odds, have continued. Here Cory English, the superbly versatile actor who plays the gambolling, impish Max Bialystock, and is the real star of this present staging, won the Evening Standard Award for best actor in a touring production. Truly well-deserved.

The Producers is a typical product of Brooks at his most exquisitely zany. Matthew White’s is a terrific production here, beautifully carved out, full of the deliciously unexpected and genuinely funny. You sense marvellous directorial gifts - the hand of a master – and scrupulous precision in virtually every move. There is always some mayhem in the making, and that mayhem invariably means fun. The audience did a lot of laughing.

The story, which is actually pretty thin, but wittily so, deals with a couple of scurrilous Jewish entrepreneurs – Bialystock and spot-an-opportunity accountant Leo Bloom (Jason Manford in a charmingly gauche yet stylish, savvy performance) – who have the wheeze of mounting a dramatic flop so they can relieve their blue rinse backers of a lot of money, but whose plan goes entertainingly awry when their play, an unexpectedly clever Nazi spoof (the original planned title was Springtime for Hitler, and that remains the title of the most zippy large chorus) proves a big hit.

Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder played the original nefarioPhillus duo – and it would be difficult to imagine a more appropriately zany twosome than that. But one of the triumphs and treats of this rip-roaring touring show is its casting. There are effectively six main roles, and a cheeky, vitalised dance ensemble as well. Every one of them turns in a bumper performance.

English’s first set pieces set the tone – radiantly and attractively sung, and already revealing the kind of finessed wit that punctuates his showing throughout: spectacularly well timed even tussling with a voracious, sex-craving granny or rolling helplessly around the stage floor: wickedly amusing, endlessly inventive, he’s a canny bird with a gift for getting his way. His agility is awesome.

Phill Jupitas as former Nazi and Hitler admiring playwright Franz Liebkind

With quality acting in depth, right across the cast, and first class vocal delivery as well, this is without doubt a corker of a show. It’s tidy, clever, elegant, poised. Cory English’s endlessly engaging and entertaining Max is impressively paired off with Manford’s Bloom, the antihero who dreams up the whole idea, and has just the right kind of hesitancy and naïve innocence, which he gradually converts to heroic, roguish scheming. Vocally he turns in a joyous performance. From the first surge of ‘We can do it!’, the melody that runs like a Leitmotif through the show, the two impudent characters never look back.  And nor does the show: led by this pair and their bizarre antics, the team turns up real quality,

Take for instance Tiffany Graves, who sails in for an audition as the aspiring Swedish girl Ulla and virtually takes command, tidying up the office and tidying up their lives at the same time. Her bustling around is a hoot. Her solo numbers were a revelation. It’s a big, warm, generous voice as well as a sensitive one, and each time look on the bright side Ulli opens her mouth she unleashes a virtual hit.

Or the splendid comedian Phill Jupitus, as the nostalgic left-over Nazi whose play they decide to stage on the grounds it’s so bad, and whose every appearance – including a particularly magical trio with the mischievous partners - proved a hoot, partly because he is hilariously dressed by designer Paul Farnsworth as a decrepit Germanic, possibly Wagnerian rocker (he arrives latterly on a motor bike) and partly because his lines are so funny (‘You may not know it, but Der Führer was descended from a long line of English kings’ or ‘Wait until they hear about this in Argentina’ (a notorious ex-Nazi hideout), and his bass voice singing (offset by side-splitting yodelling) is so profounulladly, truly impressive. An exciting sound, and a real musical talent there, matched with individual and vocal flair.  

The music, it must be said, from the jazzy opening prelude, is pretty superlative. Andrew Hilton oversees one of those top-drawer ensembles that somehow couldn’t put a foot wrong. Part of the achievement is that it’s always there pumping away but never intrudes. The solo work, especially near the end, was especially appealing. Violin and double bass made enough sound for a full string orchestra; John Graham on the reeds (flute, clarinet etc.) was exemplary; the triple brass delivered without obtruding. The keyboard work was deft and slick.

Ulla, played by Tiffany Graves, shows off her CV

The orchestrations which worked so well were by Chris Walker, though he shows a fondness for keeping the full ensemble bashing it out. If there’s a slight reservation, it’s that some of The Producers’ written numbers are rather similar in hue when greater contrast would have benefited. And fewer marks, arguably, for Gareth Owen and Olly Steel’s sound design. Their handling of the orchestra was fine, but some of the solo voices and particular spoken words was overmiked: it became a strain; to be fair, not that the audience minded much.

Around these four leads a remarkable ensemble worked, coordinated by a sparky camp duo, David Bedella as the strutting Roger De Bris, a kind of updated Louis XIV,  and Louie Spence as the hilarious Carmen Ghia, his Hispanic sidekick. Here Lee Proud’s choreography came into its own: masses of invention, lots of well-judged, clever comedy, characters swirling and slithering across the stage with perfect timing. Spence’s little solo pièce de résistance, provocatively played frontstage, was as hilarious as could be; Bedella turning up in who knows what sequined costume, beautifully spoken, and being wooed at the last moment into playing the lead – Hitler (I’m the German Ethel Merman, don’t you know’) – was a hoot.

The back-up ensemble, with the lithe Andrew Gordon-Watkins rhythmically electrifying, and the rest of the attentive, punchy, cleverly differentiated and incredibly well-rehearsed team, could not have been bettered. A ten-member tap dance engaged the eye and ear, and there was another later on; but all of their dancing and terrific parody was a treat. From principals and support team one could not ask more. Together they made this show a heart-warming stage triumph. To 25-04-15

Roderic Dunnett

20-014-15

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