You have to pity whoever’s lined up to replace Nathan Lane after he vacates his role in the Producers at the start of the new year. Stepping in at the eleventh hour to replace Richard Dreyfuss, Lane has undoubtedly saved the show and reportedly earned himself one of the fattest pay packets in the West End in the process. A smash on Broadway the New York production was never really the same once he left the cast and it’ll be interesting to see if that’s also the case in the UK.
A musical about an attempt to stage a truly terrible musical, The Producers is unsubtle, immature, crass and, most importantly, funny. And not just funny in a camp, ironic manner, but intentionally, uproariously funny. Goose-stepping showgirls and randy old ladies abound. No punch line is too obvious, no stereotype too over the top; you can see many of the jokes coming but they still hit home when they arrive.
After a string of flops, Broadway producer Max Bialystock (Lane) hatches a plan, with his anxiety prone accountant Leo Bloom (a suitably twitchy Lee Evans), to gather investment for the most tasteless, appalling stage show they can think of, and pocket the cash when the show inevitably closes. To this end they enlist the ‘talents’ of Franz Liebkind, an unbalanced Nazi playwright and Roger de Bris a director who shares a very pink apartment with his “common law assistant” Carmen Ghia (a role usually played by Gimme, Gimme, Gimme’s James Dreyfus) and who sees no problem with pepping up the script by letting the Germans win the Second World War.
Lane is clearly in his element. He’s been playing this part for a long while now but his performance never feels stale. With every arched eyebrow and knowing smile there’s a sense he’s refining his act. Even a fluffed line becomes something of a comedy moment. Lee Evans turns in probably his least irritating performance ever. Though he is hardly a fantastic singer and his dancing is continually outshone by the supporting cast, he has a definite chemistry with Lane and is, unsurprisingly, adept at all the required pratfalls; it isn’t a criticism of his performance to say that he more than holds his own.
Leigh Zimmerman (previously seen in Susan Stroman’s Contact) is also wonderful as Bialystock and Bloom’s voluptuous Swedish assistant Ulla, creating a warm and likeable character from a part that really only requires of her a comedy accent and an impressive body.
Based on the his 1968 film of the same name – starring Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder in the Lane and Evans roles respectively – Mel Brooks’ stage adaptation has stayed faithful to his original material, right down to Bloom’s fondness for his little blue blankie. Despite its eventual cult status the film version of the Producers was only ever patchily amusing; Stroman’s stage production however succeeds on many levels. Not only is it funny but its rich with references to the American stage and screen. The choreography of Bialystock’s first number, King Of Broadway, nods towards Fiddler on the Roof and a glimpse of Leo Bloom’s workplace brings to mind King Vidor’s silent classic The Crowd.
The Producers works because it both mocks and revels in the conventions of the musical, the elaborate sets, the costumes, the big dance numbers, culminating in the jaw-dropping festival of bad taste that is Springtime for Hitler itself. After such a show stopper the subsequent songs inevitably fall a little flat, and the ending is relatively downbeat in comparison, but then most things would be.