“It ain’t no myst’ry. If it’s politics or hist’ry. The thing you gotta know is. Ev’rything is show biz.” After the week that just was, who would want to disagree? But, there again…
These lines are sung by a mincing Adolf Hitler in the musical within the musical that is The Producers. Mel Brooks and Thomas Meehan’s 2001 Broadway hit (based on Brooks’s 1967 Oscar-winning film) tells the story of a pair of “backstabbing crooks”, aka Broadway producers, who aim to swindle their way to fortune by mounting a surefire flop musical in praise of Nazi Germany’s Führer. At first, I’m not sure that Raz Shaw’s production is going to be light enough or quick enough to defuse the dismaying effect of swastika-emblazoned paraphernalia. The unfurling of a rainbow banner during the not quite camp enough Keep it Gay is confusing: if one symbol is supposed to speak to us, then what’s the other doing?
In the second half, though, the production hits its stride. In Alistair David’s witty choreography, the central number, Springtime for Hitler, effectively undermines the swastika: a goose-stepping chorus jigsaws together a giant version with a hole at the centre, through which appears the fey form of the show-within-a-show’s camp director and stand-in Adolf, played with Joyce Grenfell-esque glee by Charles Brunton.
Other highlights include a chorus of walking-frame dancing little old ladies; the ridiculous yet touching opening duet between Emily-Mae’s Juno-esque actress-cum-secretary, Ulla, leading Stuart Neal’s diminutive Leo Bloom; Max Bialystock’s in-the-dock lamentation/accusation and plot reprise, Betrayed, a tour de force from Julius D’Silva; and the aptly named show-closer, Goodbye.
One of the issues of the first half is adjusting to the sound mix. Actors’ mics separate voices from bodies, to dislocating effect. This is a general defect, I find, and one shared by Kiss Me, Kate. That said, it’s the only problem with this production, another musical within a musical.
A theatre troupe mounts a musical version of Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew in which backstage love stories mirror on-stage action – with complications courtesy of a couple of gun-toting gangsters and a US general bent on marrying the leading lady. Crowded, hectic, with multiple roles, scene changes and genre shifts, its 1948 opening was predicted for failure. But Sam and Bella Spewack’s book is a miracle of balanced construction, well matched by Cole Porter’s sharp lyrics; it was, and continues to be, a hit.
Here, Paul Foster’s direction and Matt Flint’s choreography twine as seamlessly as do Porter’s lyrics and music, and match them in masking thorough craftsmanship with seemingly relaxed delivery. Of course, the people who realise these talents are the performers, and what performers these are: Edward Baker-Duly as Fred/Petruchio battling Rebecca Lock’s Lilli/Katherine – volcanic in her declamation “I hate men”; Dex Lee as handsome reprobate, Bill, crooning “Baby will you be mine” to Amy Ellen Richardson’s Lois/Bianca, who responds just the right side of saucy in Always True to You (In My Fashion); while Delroy Atkinson and Joel Montague’s Gangster 1 and 2 make it a pleasure to Brush Up Your Shakespeare, musical style.
Star ratings out of five
The Producers ★★★★
Kiss Me, Kate ★★★★★
• The Producers is at the Royal Exchange, Manchester, until 2 February
• Kiss Me, Kate is at the Crucible, Sheffield, until 12 January