The Producers The Musical by Mel Brooks is pretty much a straight adaptation of his 1968 film of the same name, and to me, having seen this multi award winning show for the first time, I think it is actually better than the film as the content matter is far better suited to a live stage.
The plot is fairly simple. Once great stage producer Max Bialystock (Cory English) has not had a theatrical hit for a very very long time. What he now produces pretty much closes on opening nights and to fund even these pitiful efforts Max is reduced to raising funds for new projects from his elderly female backers by providing them with their very late in life sexual fantasies.
When Max meets a new accountant Leo Bloom (Jason Manford) during a routine audit of his books, a chance remark from Bloom turns into a real idea. Bloom has noticed that the last show (Funny Boy - based on Hamlet) that swiftly closed raised $2,000 more from backers than the show cost, and muses that potentially it was possible to make more money from a theatrical failure than a hit. If a show was so bad on a large enough financial scale then you could make a large sum of money by "under financing" the show. If, however, the promised high return offered on investment to backers could not be met by the show being a hit, then the producer would be ruined financially. Max seizes on this idea and, after some initial hesitation from Bloom, they set out to find the worst scripts, worst director and worst cast to produce the worst show ever put on stage...a sure-fire failure.
Their dreams are realised when they come across a script by Franz Liebkind (Phill Jupitus) called "Springtime For Hitler". Franz is devoted to the memory of The Fuhrer and The Third Reich and wants the world to know and share his views.
Along the way to this sure-fire flop we meet Swedish starlet/secretary Ulla (Tiffany Graves), Director and eventual on stage Hitler Roger De Bris (David Bedella) and his personal assistant Carmen Chia (Louie Spence).
I have to say at this point that on stage comedy is not usually something I enjoy that much, as planned "being funny" is often just the opposite. This show, however, is one of those rare exceptions because it is genuinely funny in many parts. This is probably because it is actually a real musical with high standard musical production numbers. It is a musical with comedy elements and not a comedy trying to be a musical.
Cory English gives an outstanding performance as Max Bialystock, and as well as a strong vocal performance on some great stage show numbers, particularly "Betrayed", puts in a nice comedy performance with some nice comedic timing and touches. Jason Manford as Leo Bloom also puts in a great counterpoint performance to Cory's Max. As well as really good vocals on his songs, Jason gets that neurotic element in Bloom's character just right. Max and Leo as characters of course have to work well on stage and Cory and Jason do just that.
Phill Jupitus as Franz gets to put in a nice over-the-top character performance and does it very well. His role is a bit one dimensional, but Phill has more than enough comedy experience under his belt to make something out of the role.
Tiffany Graves as Ulla gives us a nice (if stereotyped) comedy performance of the pretty but not too good at anything else Swedish blonde. The relationship between Ulla and Leo does give her a bit of room to develop the role a bit.
As far as "over-the-top" roles go though, both Louie Spence (Carmen Chia) and David Bedella (Roger De Bris) probably hit the jackpot here. Both get a chance to really overplay and they do it wonderfully.
There are some great theatrical show tunes in this show, but the one everyone probably remembers from the film is "Springtime For Hitler". Set against a red and black set of Nazi flags, chorus girls, camp SS soldiers and a very camp Hitler (David Bedella), the whole number is simply one of mockery of The Third Reich.
Mel Brooks was a combat soldier in World War II and making an enemy something to laugh at was, to him, a way to defeat them. Mel Brooks is probably one of the few people of real genius working in films, so who am I to argue with his logic. I still found the visuals of a stage full of Swastikas a bit disturbing (even if in mockery) for the big "Springtime" number. I wonder if when the original film was produced Mel Brooks could ever have foreseen the re-surge in political power across Europe of far right parties?
This is a great show. Do not if possible miss it. Perhaps now more than ever, we need someone like Mel Brooks to shine a spotlight on past events to be vigilant in our future. Yes, we can look back and mock, but we can also never forget how serious the subject matter was (or can be again).
Review by Tom King