The Royal Exchange Christmas offerings have become a must see fixture over the past few years. They become renowned for dispensing with the more traditional Christmas razzle dazzle that you’d be accustomed to seeing theatres put on at this time of year. Their past hits have included such classics as Frank Loesser’s Guys and Dolls, Neil Simon’s Sweet Charity and Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods. It is this well travelled musical road that Royal Exchange once again venture upon with another Broadway inspired show as its showpiece Christmas production – their version of Mel Brooks’ The Producers.
The original 1967 film has become something of a classic. Starring Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder, it bagged its director an Oscar for Best Screenplay with it’s scandalous near-to-the-knuckle humour, which centred around a pair of fictional producers trying to create a flop Broadway show that featured singing and dancing Nazis. It was later adapted by Brooks and Thomas Meehan as a stage musical, which itself was adapted into a film, starring Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick.
It shouldn’t work but it does.
As you would expect from the Royal Exchange, it’s a lavish production full of vigour and decadence that epitomises the generous feelings that come at this time of year. The cast play this for all its worth. To the hilt. They really do.
Playing the charming charlatan Max Bialystock is Julius D’Silva with an exemplary attempt at a comb-over that even the legendary Bobby Charlton would be proud of. He embraces the role with a devilish performance that bridges the gap between slapstick comedy and verbose showmanship. His foil in Stuart Neal is equally adept as the meek and mild mannered Leo Bloom
The same can be said for most of the cast with some eye catching, scene stealing performances. This is no more epitomised by Hammed Animashaun, whose extravagant and ostentatious portrayal of Carmen Ghia is utterly affectionate and has the crowds eating out of the palms of his hands at his every flamboyant turn. Likewise Emily-Mae sparkles as Ulla.
However, whilst these individual performances are worthy of highlighting, what truly sets this production apart is when everything comes together in one big singalong unison that makes it that bit magical. Normally, the ensemble rarely get a mention because by their very nature they are often on the periphery of the stage while the spotlight shines on the glittering main actors. However, the ensemble seem to be a catalyst for when the production sparkles and with such gusto in their delivery the big show numbers really come alive.
Indeed, when you add the subtle direction from Raz Shaw, the fantastic choreography from Alistair David and the ingenuity from designer Ben Stones (the famous round has a revolving stage which the production fully utilises) all bringing a touch of the old razzmatazz, this is a production that has the audience totally captivated.
Numbers such as ‘I’m Unhappy’ show a sublime synchronicity in how stunning the choreography is, or watching Nazis in sequins tap dancing whilst the stage revolves isa toe tappingly thrilling or the big finale where the bizarre sight of the cast singing the musical signature tune, ‘Springtime for Hitler,’ as they hold a massive swastika is bizarre but brilliant at the same time.
Here’s where I take a deep breath though.
Whilst this glitters it must be said that it’s somewhat of an odd choice from Royal Exchange. The fashion it seems from a lot of theatre houses is to shun the nostalgic Christmas fare and put on glitzy musicals instead. Choosing The Producers with its risque humour and nefarious antics of its main characters, which perhaps in the #metoo environment might not sit well with most folk.
For my part however, I find the murmurings a sideshow – valid as they are. The Producers in its context is celebrated for its uncomfortable satirical humour, even if it concerns one of the most evil acts in humanity or an indicator of how we view the reprehensible behaviour that perhaps in years gone by maybe considered acceptable.
Look past this and you can see why people adore this story, the characters of Bloom and Bialystock are underdogs that you end up rooting for (and the audience my dear ready whooped and cheered frequently at times). Add to this some wonderful old skool slapstick, some glorious tunes, fabulous costumes and a shimmering of showmanship and I’d say you’ve got another great Christmas offering from The Royal Exchange.
Verdict: Another memorable Christmas production from Royal Exchange with a classic adaptation of the Mel Brooks classic, The Producers. Lots of laughs, and stunning showtunes will have you full of Xmas cheer!