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The Producers

Jason Manford and Cory English in The Producers. Photo: Manuel Harlan Jason Manford and Cory English in The Producers. Photo: Manuel Harlan
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The Producers is the phenomenal musical that back in 2001 created its own sub-genre of meta-musicals that paid tribute to and sent up other Broadway musicals. It led in turn to such shows as Urinetown, Monty Python’s Spamalot and The Drowsy Chaperone. But none has yet bettered its knowing, loving valentine to the hapless art of putting on flop shows, and it remains that paradoxical thing: a really great musical about a really awful one.

A new production, created for a UK national tour, manages another paradox: looking somewhat under-capitalised on the design front for a show that’s all about over-capitalising a musical, as it tells the backstage story of a pair of theatre producers who hit upon a scheme to ensure a flop and pocket the difference between the money they’ve spent and the capitalisation they’ve raised. They even keep two sets of accounting books – and in a case of life imitating art, it’s the same ruse that led Canadian theatre impresario Garth Drabinksy to be indicted and imprisoned for fraud eight years after this show opened.

Here it even looks as if the set from the last UK tour of West Side Story has been pillaged for two framing New York tenement steel staircases on either side of the stage. But it is perhaps just another reference in a production bulging with nods to other shows, from A Chorus Line and Follies to Fiddler on the Roof and 42nd Street. Indeed, the number Springtime for Hitler is staged in the manner of We’re in the Money from the latter show, complete with tap-dancing on giant-dollar coin discs.

But if Paul Farnsworth’s set – otherwise dominated by a static backdrop of the New York skyline with only slash curtains flown in for the big, aforementioned show-within-the-show number – is mainly perfunctory, the performances are much more than merely functional, or even dysfunctional, since just about everyone in Mel Brooks’ riotous script has issues of one kind or another.

Cory English, who played producer Max Bialystock in the original West End run of the show in succession to Nathan Lane, reprises the role with a manic comic ease and energy, ideally partnered by Jason Manford’s more gently subservient (but ultimately subversive) Leo Bloom, who hits upon the accounting scheme in the first place. Stand-up comic Manford is an absolute revelation, not just in his on-the-note singing but his effortless dancing, too.

Fellow stand-up Phill Jupitus, who has already appeared in a number of musicals, is a scene-stealing delight as Franz Liebkind, the manic German writer with a Hitler fixation, while Tiffany Graves is both glamorous and hilarious as the slim, agile Ulla, who likes many different herrings for breakfast, followed by sex at 11am. There are also good comic turns from David Bedella and Louie Spence as director Roger de Bris and his partner Carmen Ghia.

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The musical about musicals remains an irresistible insider’s joy, but is executed with such comic flair that you don’t necessarily need to be in on the jokes to appreciate it