Review: THE PRODUCERS (Royal Exchange Theatre)

Mel Brooks’ musical comedy was an absolute smash hit when it premiered on Broadway in 2001, evoking the Golden Age of Broadway with its hilarious script and old school sound. Years on, Manchester’s Royal Exchange Theatre tackle the musical balls-to-the-wall, the result being a hilarious musical romp.

THE PRODUCERS revolves around an oddball couple of opportunistic theatre producers who discover that there’s more money to be made in a failure than a hit. The pair actively search to put on the worst musical of all time finding the worst script, director and cast imaginable resulting in Springtime for Hitler, a musical ‘guaranteed to offend all races, colours and creeds!’

Raz Shaw’s production has brought the glitz and glamour of Broadway to the streets of Manchester in a delightfully camp, over the top production. Translating a musical in the round is an arduous task for any director, but Shaw not only manages this but excels. Shaw brilliantly captures the intense humour of Mel Brooks creating a production of sheer escapist joy. You’re unlikely to find a funnier musical anywhere in the country in 2019.

THE PRODUCERS relies heavily on a cast of brilliant character actors, and the Royal Exchange has assembled a crack team to head up this show. Julius D’Silva, who’s resumé is mainly composed of Shakespearean roles, is genius in the role of Max Bialystock. Stepping into the shoes of Zero Mostel and Nathan Lane, D’Silva makes the role his own bringing a suitable subtle eccentricity to the character. From the moment we’re introduced to the ex ‘King of Broadway’, he delights the audience with a knowing wink, letting us know we’re in safe hands for the night. It’s a brilliantly funny performance judged perfectly by the veteran D’Silva. He is suitably matched by Stuart Neal as the neurotic accountant Leo Bloom. His characterisation never falters as he teeters on the verge of a nervous breakdown all night. He proves to be a true musical leading man as an absolute triple theatre, his singing, dancing and acting throughout the night is faultless, highlighted in his leading number ‘I Wanna Be a Producer’.

The show has a treasure trove of supporting characters but special mention has to be given to Charles Brunton as the ostentatious theatre director Roger De Bris. The actor is having a whale of a time onstage and the audience just feeds off his exuberant energy. Watching Brunton descend on a German eagle to the stage from the heavens had the audience genuinely losing it, as did his act one showstopper ‘Keep it Gay’.

The choreography and design elements of the piece deserve huge credit. Having seen the previous five musicals at the Royal Exchange, Alistair David’s dancing on stage is a level up from the theatre’s norm. Likewise, Ben Stones’ design keeps the in-the-round theatre ever changing with a vast array of set pieces and props. These elements all come together in the act two highlight Springtime for Hitler. Not to spoil what happens during the number, it’s both cringe inducing and wildly entertaining. I guarantee that even the most hardened of audiences will struggle to keep a wide smile off their face.

In a post #MeToo world, THE PRODUCERS will undoubtedly be held up to scrutiny. A year removed from the Weinstein scandal watching powerful entertainment moguls like Bialystock make sexual advances with his sleazy casting couch and constant heckling will make some uncomfortable no doubt. However, when taken in the cartoonish context of the piece, it gives the show a new satirical dimension, only adding to the outrageous tone of the piece.

The first review that Bialystock reads following the accidental success of Springtime for Hitler says ‘shocking, insulting and outrageous and I loved every minute of it’. I think it captures the essence of this production perfectly and stands to hold the lasting quality of Mel Brooks’ musical. This musical doesn’t just evoke the classics now, it feels like a classic.

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