The Pro­duc­ers

The Guardian - G2 - - Live Reviews - Mem­o­rable and thrilling … Mit­suko Uchida Michael Billing­ton

★★★★☆ Royal Ex­change, Manch­ester, un­til 26 Jan­uary

Mel Brooks’s 2001 mu­si­cal, like the movie on which it is based, al­ways flirted with dan­ger. You might think that to­day, with the emer­gence of neo-nazism in Europe and rev­e­la­tions about preda­tory pro­duc­ers in the US, it was beyond the pale. But judg­ing by the ri­otous re­cep­tion given to Raz Shaw’s su­perb re­vival, we em­brace Brooks’s bon­fire of good taste more warmly than ever.

One rea­son, I sus­pect, is that au­di­ences are now fa­mil­iar with the big idea: that Max Bi­a­ly­stock and Leo Bloom, a shys­ter pro­ducer and a nervy ac­coun­tant, unite to per­suade back­ers to over-in­vest in a mu­si­cal about Hitler that is sure to fail. Not only do most peo­ple know the plot: they even seem to re­mem­ber the jokes. When Leo quits his dead-end job and tells his boss: “I’m not go­ing to the toi­let, I’m go­ing into show­busi­ness,” the line is greeted as if it were a well-loved friend.

Far from giv­ing of­fence, the show has now ac­quired an ex­tra patina of charm. I’d also say that it’s a sign of lib­eral progress that we can af­ford to laugh at the stereo­types of yes­ter­year. When, for in­stance, Max and Leo go to visit an epicene di­rec­tor and his as­sis­tant minc­ingly in­vites them to “walk this way”, we are grownup enough to see that no harm is meant. Sim­i­larly, al­though we are more con­scious than ever of the haz­ards of age, the spec­ta­cle of the randy old­sters who bankroll Max’s show tap-danc­ing with the aid of their walk­ing-frames cheers rather than re­pels us.

Even the num­ber to­wards which the whole show builds, Spring­time for Hitler, is out­ra­geous rather than off-putting. One rea­son is that Brooks un­der­stood, like Chap­lin be­fore him, that there was al­ways an el­e­ment of kitsch vul­gar­ity to nazism. So here, thanks to Ben Stones’s de­sign and Alis­tair David’s chore­og­ra­phy, we see be­span­gled chorines sport­ing sausage-shaped and ea­gle-crested head­gear and goose-step­ping with rhyth­mic en­thu­si­asm. Not only is Brooks ridi­cul­ing the Hit­le­rian love of spec­ta­cle; by hav­ing the crit­ics hail Spring­time for Hitler as a “satir­i­cal mas­ter­piece”, he also pokes fun at our own abil­ity to ab­sorb shock.

For all its dar­ing, Brooks’s show is ul­ti­mately a nos­tal­gic throw­back to vaudeville and a tes­ta­ment to male friend­ship. Julius D’Silva’s won­der­fully ex­u­ber­ant Max is both a con­man and a fa­ther fig­ure and I love the fact that, in a tribute to Zero Mos­tel, who cre­ated the role in the orig­i­nal movie, stray wisps of black hair snake across his pate. There is also a warmth to D’Silva that takes the sting out of the fact that Max uses sex as a source of cap­i­tal.

Stu­art Neal lends the Joycean Leo the right air of wide-eyed earnest­ness, and there is fine sup­port from Dale Meeks as an un­re­con­structed Nazi au­thor and Charles Brun­ton as the show’s cross-dress­ing di­rec­tor.

Even though Emily-Mae plays her well, the one joke that now looks past its sell-by date is that of the pro­duc­ers’ Swedish sec­re­tary who likes to have sex ev­ery day at 11. But this is a head­ily plea­sur­able show that, as­ton­ish­ingly, marks Shaw’s de­but as a di­rec­tor of mu­si­cals and that of­fers as much fun as you could hope to find on any stage this Christ­mas.

Mel Brooks’s bon­fire of good taste of­fers as much fun as you’ll find on any stage this Christ­mas

Heil jinks … Julius D’Silva as Max Bi­a­ly­stock, with the cast of The Pro­duc­ers

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