Musicals are almost synonymous with the proscenium arch. Gilded frames come with the territory. It’s a form that, more than most, we associate with the grand old theatres that line Broadway and the streets of the West End. The Royal Exchange’s in-the-round auditorium – suspended, spaceship-like, in its column-lined shell – is a world apart from the Great White Way. Yet Raz Shaw’s production of The Producers takes this space and moulds the show to it. End-on spectacle is replaced with close-up, explosive energy. By the end of the lively first number, it’s hard to imagine this show done any other way.
The dropping of any imagined barrier between stage and audience feels absolutely in keeping with the knowing spirit of Mel Brooks’ Broadway satire. Here, we’re in on the central scam of overselling shares in a production designed to flop – a creative con carried out by an unlikely double act. As over-the-hill producer Max Bialystock, Julius D’Silva has a swagger that defies his fraying reputation. By contrast, Stuart Neal’s wiry, nervous Leo Bloom begins the show as an apology of a man, folded up into himself. The accountant who unwittingly gifts Bialystock with his big idea is hunch-shouldered and fidgety, his spine a startled question mark. Bit by bit, showtune by showtune, he gains in both height and confidence.
Shaw’s production, like its central characters, is in love with the shimmer and sparkle of the theatre. In one of the most striking of the show’s many set-pieces, Leo is picked up out of his stifling accountancy firm and dropped into the sequins and feathers of his bottled-up Broadway dreams. In a moment, the uniform desks and identically unhappy workers are whisked away, replaced with high-kicking showgirls. A scene change – one of those seams that theatre usually tries to hide – becomes a giddy daydream in the hands of Shaw and designer Ben Stones. Here and elsewhere, Alistair David’s choreography is inspired, swirling outwards from the centre of the stage in a dizzying array of patterns.
As a musical to revive in 2018, The Producers is both an odd and an apt choice. The show within the show – an outrageously offensive Nazi romp that succeeds against the odds (and all intentions) – takes on a different flavour today. In a world where neo-Nazis feel emboldened, showing the middle finger to a ridiculous, sequin-encrusted Hitler is at once bold and uncomfortable. Is this gesture subversive or simply problematic? At the same time, it’s now much less of a stretch to imagine a wildly provocative and distasteful commercial hit. Just look at Jerry Springer the Opera or The Book of Mormon. Orgies of bad taste bring in the big bucks.
To be completely honest, it’s not really my kind of humour – though I defy anyone not to snort with laughter as Charles Brunton’s gloriously camp FÃ¼hrer pops his head through a glittery swastika. But while much of the comedy just isn’t my cup of tea, it’s executed by Shaw with polish and precision. Brooks, I imagine, would approve. Greater discomfort clings to the show’s treatment of women, who are either nymphomaniac OAPs or hot young things to be ogled at. Both stereotypes are played with tongue firmly in cheek, but the mingling of sex and power in the producer’s office has a bitter taste post-Weinstein.
That said, Shaw and co work hard to transform Brooks’ comedy into feelgood festive fun. It might not be an obvious Christmas show, but then a few Nazis never seem to get in the way of The Sound of Music being broadcast every Boxing Day. And by the end of The Producers, good cheer just about outweighs the occasional uneasiness. As silliness piles on silliness, it’s hard not to grin.
The Producers runs at the Royal Exchange, Manchester until 26 January 2019. More info here.