Mel Brooks’ musical version of his 1967 film debut was such a success because it got so many things right. Its standout central conceit – a hit show about a pair of shysters attempting to get rich by staging the worst production in Broadway history – still feels like a delicious theatrical in-joke. The resulting show-within-a-show, the audaciously awful Springtime for Hitler, still feels daring more than 40 years after the original film was released.
But the real genius of Brooks’ 2001 collaboration with playwright Thomas Meehan and director and choreographer Susan Stroman was to add a generous dollop of warmth to the acerbic tale, focusing on the friendship of its central protagonists and showing a huge affection for the musical form it was sending up.
This roundly enjoyable Royal Exchange revival maximises the wit and warmth in Brooks’ words, buoyed on by the interplay of Julius D’Silva and Stuart Neal as Bialystock and Bloom. D’Silva can’t quite escape the shadow of Zero Mostel and, especially, Nathan Lane as the oily Bialystock but combines to great effect with Neal, who brings a believable humanity to the potentially cartoonish character of nebbish accountant Bloom, with their partnership providing the show with its beating heart.
Retaining the original’s period setting excuses some of the show’s rampant sexism, with the humour holding up much better than Brooks’ problematic recent stage re-imagining of Young Frankenstein. At least Emily-Mae seems to be in on the joke as stereotypical Swedish sexpot Ulla, while Charles Brunton and Hammed Animashaun embrace the OTT campness that surrounds the characters of cross-dressing hack director Roger De Bris and his “common law assistant” Carmen to such a joyously heightened effect as to bypass any potential offence.
On the surface, Raz Shaw’s production looks like an identikit staging of past versions. Early scenes don’t make the most of the Exchange’s lofty, in-the-round central space and, visually, the show only really hits its stride in the bigger ensemble numbers.
But when they arrive, they have tremendous impact, with the chorus line of Zimmer frame-wielding biddies that accompanies Along Came Bialy, crisply choreographed by Alistair David, and, particularly, the roof-raising Busby Berkeley-style climax of Springtime for Hitler using Ben Stones’ clever rotating set to maximum effect.
Among such attention-grabbing set pieces, the show’s subtler sections can be overlooked. This is where Neal again excels as Bloom, with his sweet delivery of That Face offering a touching counterpoint to the bigger comic moments.
That’s not to say that the more farcical sections don’t land – with Dale Meeks bringing the crazy as Nazi writer Franz and, in Haben Sie Gehort Das Deutsche Band?, delivering the show’s best song – but the production remembers that there’s more to The Producers than just goose-stepping chorus girls.