On a rainy Melbourne Saturday night, Mel Brooks’s musical adaptation of his 1968 film The Producers was lustily embraced by the opening night crowd last weekend, who laughed themselves silly throughout.
The play won 12 Tony Awards three years ago, so doesn’t that make it the best musical of all time?
Well, no, although the show isn’t without moments of pure, horrifying delight.
But first, the plot. Max Bialystock (Reg Livermore) is a Broadway producer trying to salvage his career after yet another flop. His new accountant Leopold Bloom (Tom Burlinson) suggests that if they knew a show was going to fail in advance, they could make a fortune by amassing 1,000 percent of investments.
Bialystock and Bloom set about producing an event so appalling it’s a guaranteed flop, in this case Franz Leibkind’s (Bert Newtown) neo-Nazi musical Springtime For Hitler, directed as a gay romp by fag director Roger DeBris (Tony Sheldon).
The joy lies in the performances. Chloe Dallimore is faultless as Ulla, a Swedish showgirl with a thick accent and an intellect to match. Livermore and Burlinson do backflips with cardboard characters, but somehow engender empathy and laughs.
The Springtime For Hitler number is also gripping and ghastly. The decision to allow Roger DeBris to play Hitler at the last minute (stolen straight from the film Waiting For Guffmann) allows Sheldon to perform what must be a career highlight: Sheldon impersonating Judy Garland while playing Adolf Hitler.
Sheldon’s queeny common-law assistant Carmen Ghia (Grant Piro) is also an hysterical but guilty pleasure, as The Producers contains some astonishingly dated stereotypes. Anyone who’s ever seen a Mel Brooks film would not be shocked at this -“ think Dom DeLuise’s swishy director in Blazing Saddles -“ but it’s still a little difficult to absorb.
By the same token, it would be silly to suggest that Brooks is some vile homophobe. Everybody gets mowed down in Brooksland, and he is, after all, a Jewish man who created two Jewish characters so greedy they collaborate with Nazis in order to swindle money from old women.
The Producers too is that uncommon musical that is primarily concerned with comedy. As a result attempts to develop characters and introduce pathos seem mawkish, and everyone’s performances are strictly pantomime (even by the standards of musical theatre). The big problem, however, is the songs, most of which are unmemorable.
If you have a wicked sense of humour, then you’ll find something to laugh about in The Producers. There are moments that are probably delicious enough to cherish forever, even if the best musical ever isn’t quite the sum of its parts.
Info The Producers plays at The Princess Theatre, Melbourne. Phone (03) 9299 9112 for bookings.