Perhaps all great directors are guilty of fictionalising and – ephemerally at least – normalising offensive themes and tales underlined with audacious theatrical wit. Mel Brooks’ musical version of his 1967 film The Producers does this and more; it succeeds in creating a coherent narrative that places its gross and ludicrous Springtime for Hitler in your face, whilst serving a wonderful treat of a show.
The hugely popular Broadway play-within-a-play revival, currently at The Royal Exchange, comes at a time essentially termed the age of outrage; where the decay of debate makes us all so quick to take offence. Perhaps Brooks wanted to make the point that no one is free from being ridiculed.
Whilst the director, Raz Shaw, does agree that the show is “wonderfully offensive”, he gushes over Brooks’ genius in melding humour, the musical form and Susan Stroman’s choreography to bring a “musical drunk on its desire to entertain” – and it does not disappoint.
The show is about a man who was once the biggest producer on Broadway. For a while, he had been producing failure after failure, before an accountant came into his office and told him, by accident, that he can make more money by putting on a flop than putting on a hit. As a result, it is about the pair of them trying to find a show that would lose them as much money as possible.
Adapted by Brooks and Thomas Meehan in 2001, the award-winning musical runs parallel to the book’s plot; exhibiting German stereotypes and sexism. The humour and friendship of Bailystock (Julius D’Silva) and Bloom (Stuart Neal) carry the show, with the former commanding the stage with generous portions of charm, from his nervous, sweaty days with his ‘blanket’ to his liberation and relief when he finally gets his lady.
The over-the-top drag queens with their campness and slapstick humour are more outrageously comical than tasteless. The choreography partnered with the costumes – chorus girls with pretzel and sausage-shaped headgear – rhythmically mirrored the narrative and style of the show seamlessly, without any cringe.
Sound designer Carolyn Downing and Orchestrator Chris Walker provide a flourish of big ensemble numbers that add the right amount of warmth as Brooks continually pokes at our intolerance for cold, shocking truths.
For a musical that was written around 20 years ago, this production’s relevance is perhaps now more fitting than ever; reassuring and encouraging us to openly talk about terrible things like Hitler without shuddering into depression or rage. With the benefit of Brooks’ writing, Shaw’s stage debut is every bit as good as any in Broadway. He successfully makes terrible things entertaining and lands this pleasurable show in Manchester just in time for Christmas. The flap of programmes and chairs as the audience stood in synchronised appreciation at the end is a solid testament to this production’s success.
With regards to the ‘PC brigade’, I will leave you with Brooks’ conclusion: “The way to deal with despots like Hitler is not to get on a soapbox and fight [them] with rhetoric, but to fight them with ridicule, to laugh at them – laugh at them into oblivion”.
The Producers is at The Royal Exchange in Manchester until 26 January 2019.