Never mind Max Bialystock’s ultra-bad “Springtime for Hitler” on Broadway, it’s definitely springtime for Mel Brooks’ ultra-hilarious The Producers in the West End.
With an irresistible satirical spring in each of their heels, the three new principal cast members easily acquit themselves in what seemed to me, first time round, as the funniest show in the universe and still leaves me grabbing the water bottle every five minutes to stave off collapsing in a heap of hysteria in the aisle.
Originally, Cory English was a walking understudy for both Nathan Lane’s Max and Lee Evans’ wannabe producer Leo Bloom, and actually played Max for some performances when Lane left the show due to a back injury. Now he’s wearing Max’s seedy Broadway producer’s fedora as if it was always designed to fit his greasy comb-over hair. He may not be quite as malevolent, or as fat, or as over-the top, as Lane’s showbiz shyster and yet English has achieved the near impossible and made this barnstorming role completely his own – a dishevelled little sleazeball crook with the shyster undertones of a young Mel Brooks.
As Leo Bloom, his mousy sidekick in the ignoble art of ratting on investors, fleecing fruity old ladies and mounting goose-stepping Nazi romps, Reece Shearsmith - one quarter of The League of Gentlemen and last seen in the West End as Jaques in As You Like It - also plays the comic shots right to the back of the Drury Lane gallery. And while he’s surprisingly good at acting neurosis and tackles the required singing and dancing with ease, there’s also a rare chemistry developing on stage between him and English that, for me, never quite bubbled up between Lane’s star turn and Evans’ jittery Leo.
Towering over everyone else, former understudy Rachel McDowall exudes Swedish raunch as platinum blonde bombshell Ulla, and measures up against leggy Leigh Zimmerman in the original cast with her show-stopping rendition of “When You Got It, Flaunt It”.
But while the new trio blaze, the other cast members, from the goose-stepping showgirls to the line-up of zimmer-framed little old ladies, are all at their glittermost, especially Don Gallagher as the worst director on Broadway, Roger de Bris, who ends up playing Hitler like a German Ethel Merman, and Stephen Matthews as the über-camp Carmen Ghia. They both bring the house down, as does Nicolas Colicos, still amazing as the insane Nazi author Franz Liekind.
The booking period has just been extended beyond the summer and into the autumn so, as Max’s little old ladies might say, “Lick-me, bite-me, kiss-me, feel-me” for a ticket.
- Roger Foss
Note: The following FIVE-STAR review dates from November 2004 and this production's original West End cast.
In 42nd Street - the Broadway backstage musical (by way of a 1933 film) that transferred triumphantly to Drury Lane for a four-and-a-half year run in the mid-1980s - the director of the show-within-the-show Julian Marsh exclaims, "The two greatest words in the English language - musical comedy!" Now that Mel Brooks’ The Producers, another Broadway backstage musical (by way of a 1968 film) has arrived at the same address for the mid-2000s, you may very well believe that statement to be true.
This is an evening of almost relentless laughter, rocking the venerable Lane to its very foundations, thanks in large part to another Lane - Nathan Lane, who has stepped in at short notice (but for a very short run to 8 January only), to take over the Tony-winning role that he originally created on Broadway in 2001.
He plays Max Bialystock, one-half of a producing partnership with accountant-turned-producer Leo Bloom, whose determination to produce a monster flop and pocket the residual investment spectacularly backfires when it turns into a massive hit instead, even though it's actually a tasteless salute to Hitler and the Nazi party.
Lane's boundless comic and musical energy has already become the stuff of theatrical legend as one of those bravura leading man performances - like Rex Harrison's Henry Higgins, Zero Mostel's Pseudolus, Yul Brynner's King of Siam, Michael Crawford's Phantom or Colm Wilkinson's Jean Valjean - that become forever associated with that performer, regardless of whoever else goes on to play the part.
And, though they must have the hottest ticket in town today, the producers of The Producers may well be stuck with their own problem in seeking to replace the irreplaceable Lane, who has consistently proved to be a tough, if not impossible, act to follow. When Britain's own Henry Goodman went to New York to attempt to do so, he was summarily dismissed three weeks into his run there.
The jinx on the part continued here with the Dreyfuss Affair, in which the Jaws actor Richard Dreyfuss made jaws drop as he told TV chat show audiences not to bother to see him in the part before Christmas as he just wasn't ready, and departed from the production soon after, before previews even began.
But Susan Stroman's slick, lavish and generous London recreation of the Broadway hit that she both directed and choreographed has several other aces up its sleeve, not least a performance from the rubber-faced (and limbed) comedian Lee Evans (in the role originally taken on Broadway by Matthew Broderick) of co-producer Bloom. Evans projects a sweet vulnerability that scene-for-scene-stealing scene is every match for Lane's virtuosity.
Then there's Leigh Zimmerman, impossibly tall and improbably funny as Swedish model Ulla; Conleth Hill as the ridiculously but hilariously camp director Roger DeBris and James Dreyfus as his irrepressible assistant Carmen Ghia; and Nicolas Colicos as the German playwright and Hitler apologist Franz Liebkind.
There isn't a false note in the casting anywhere in a musical that pokes fun at Nazis, old ladies, gay men and Swedes with equal and reckless abandon. Though Jerry Springer - The Opera may have since stolen a march on this show in the tastelessness stakes (and has a far superior score), The Producers contains easily the most uninhibited fun of any musical in London right now.
Go - but hurry! You don't want to miss Lane at the Lane.
- Mark Shenton