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The Producers

by: Caroline Westbrook - Last updated: 2004-11-12

The Producers comes to London

The Producers

In Mel Brooks' The Producers, Nathan Lane shouts 'If you got it, flaunt it'. And for over two hours, that's just what the cast do in this spectacular London version of the Broadway hit.

The show has been a long time coming to the capital, and the production hasn't been without its problems – original star Richard Dreyfuss pulled out just days before it was due to begin, with Lane stepping in at the last minute to resurrect his portrayal of the down-and-out theatrical producer Max Bialystock, which he originated on Broadway.

When we first meet Max, he's struggling to retain his former glory – his latest show, a musical version of Hamlet, has been an almighty flop, and his career is on a downward spiral – to the extent that he is forced to pleasure little old ladies and indulge in bizarre fetish games just to raise money for his lame-brained productions.

But when nebbish account Leo Bloom (here played by Lee Evans) steps in to do his books, things start looking brighter as the pair stumble upon a scheme to put on the biggest flop in history – which could end up making them both rich. But first they have to find the worst show – and after going through hundreds of scripts the pair discover Springtime For Hitler, penned by mad Nazi Franz Liebkind. And once he's on board – together with the world's worst director, the ultra-camp Roger DeBris – what could possibly go wrong?

Sure, what follows is tasteless and over-the-top – from seig heiling pigeons through to jokes about gays having to go back into the closet – but it's also extremely funny, thanks to a brilliant knockabout script that satirises one of the most gruesome periods of history. And the cast give it their all – Nathan Lane is superb as the loveable sleazeball Bialystock, delivering an astonishingly physical performance that switches between slapstick and pathos with ease. He
seems to be enjoying himself enormously, in the role originally created for screen by Zero Mostel.

Evans, meanwhile, playing the part that Gene Wilder originally played in the film, is a terrific foil for Lane – the pair have starred together before (in the film Mousehunt) and seem to have good chemistry together. The British comedian's own talent for physical comedy comes into good use here, and he brings a lot of charm and naivety to the character, while Lane acts as his mentor/father figure.

No Mel Brooks production would be complete without sexual chemistry, and also exaggerating stereotypes. The former comes in the shape of sexy Swedish star Ulla (Leigh Zimmerman), while the latter comes in every shape and form, whether it's poking fun at gay people, Irish stereotypes, Germans or even Jews.

Yet it works, because it's as clever as it's politically incorrect (typified by the scene in which director DeBris suggests that they change the script from the Germans losing the war to them winning it – because people don't like a sad ending when they go to the theatre).

And the songs – which are more inspired by big old-fashioned musical theatre than by more contemporary productions – take the show's gleeful tastelessness to another level. In one song Bialystock and Bloom lament that the show should have failed because 'half the audience were Jews' – yet the irony of course is that Jews will love this, and equally important, non-Jews will embrace it too.

The music reaches a peak with Springtime For Hitler itself, which is so over-the-top that it's preposterous – but one of the funniest things ever to grace a London stage. Imagine scantily-clad Las Vegas style showgirls adorned with phallic German symbols (including a sausage, naturally, and a pretzel?), and you'll get the idea – but really, it has to be seen to be believed.

This American import not only works from an acting point of view, but also benefits from the attention to detail, with production qualities that are impossible to fault – the three-dimensional style sets give the stage depth and a real 1960s feel, and no expense has been spared on the costumes. It's a slice of real Broadway, transferred to London with all the slickness and panache you would expect from the New York stage.

Related link:

The Producers London