No English actor has yet had the courage to step into the shoes of Max Bialystock, since its film creator (and co-creator of the musical version) Mel Brooks unceremoniously fired Henry Goodman from the New York production in the midst of his previews, to take over from Nathan Lane.
And then Richard Dreyfuss, too, departed from the original London production before even giving a single performance.
Lane himself rushed in to open the show here and then each of Lane’s other Broadway replacements, Brad Oscar and Fred Applegate, also took over.
Now, however, an actor called Cory English (who is in fact American) has taken the reigns, having understudied Lane originally in London and partly channelled him in the process. He’s a brilliant comic fit with his combed-over, receding hairline but also his own cosmic life force, that brilliantly achieves the physical comedy of the role, as well as the fine verbal humour. He is also terrifically partnered now by another comedian turned musical star. Like Lee Evans, who originated the role of Leo Bloom, the League of Gentlemen’s Reece Shearsmith, too, proves a natural musical actor.
Though his singing voice is light, he has an effortless charm and proves irresistibly funny.
But then, so is the entire show, which just has to be the single funniest musical about musicals ever written. With another American-born performer Nicolas Colicos, now resident in the UK, as a particularly unhinged Franz Liebkind, still with the show from the first night, newly joined by Don Gallagher, Stephen Matthews and Rachel McDowell as Roger de Bris, Carmen Ghia and Ulla, respectively, each of these glorious characters springs to hilarious comic life in Susan Stroman’s magnificently drilled production.
After the lacklustre facsimile of Stroman’s own film version released last year, that seemed to merely pass a camera in front of the stage production, it is exciting to be reminded once again that it is this show’s essential theatricality that wins the day.