After several months of poor ticket sales and early closures in the West End this year, hopes were pinned on the three big autumn musicals: The Woman In White, The Producers and Mary Poppins. Then, in September, The Woman In White opened to mostly only middling reviews. Suddenly, The Producers was batting not just for itself, but for the reputation of all London theatreland. And does it succeed? Hey, is Mel Brooks Jewish?
It’s a case of life imitating art. Mel Brooks’ 1968 film about the ultimate Broadway musical flop that accidentally became a hit, was actually turned into a hit Broadway musical itself in 2001. London has been waiting since then. It nearly had to wait even longer, when star Richard Dreyfuss suddenly left mere days before the first preview. As the comic strips say, “Only one man could save them now”: Nathan Lane.
Lane is the saviour of the show on Broadway (sales fall when he’s not in it), and could join the London run at short notice. And boy, but he’s good. He’s not the kind of overt vulgarian that Mel Brooks himself can be; rather, like Zero Mostel in the film, Lane combines lecherous immorality with a kind of rumpled, tattered dignity. Max Bialystock is the vital mainstay of the show, and Lane delivers in spades.
As Bialystock’s innocent new partner, accountant Leo Bloom, Lee Evans is poised to win armfuls of awards. Evans is long overdue recognition as an actor as well as a comedian; and, from playing in Samuel Beckett six months ago to this, his acting talents can surely no longer go unacknowledged. He sometimes relies a bit too much on the old Norman-Wisdom-cum-monkey-face mugging, but all told he’s terrific.
Conleth Hill, last seen on stage as an East German spy in Michael Frayn’s Democracy, is outrageous here as the camp director, backed up by James Dreyfus as his “common-law assistant”. As for Leigh Zimmerman as Swedish siren Ulla... as a friend of mine would say, she has legs all the way up to Tufnell Park. They’re amazing. I mean, she is. Susan Stroman re-creates her Broadway magic as director and choreographer.
The jaw-dropping moments just keep coming, from a chorus girl dressed in giant pretzels to a line of old women doing a tap routine with Zimmer frames. Obviously, some people will think the fictitious musical Springtime For Hitler is a bad-taste gag too far. But it’s not done in either malice or ignorance. Perhaps by accident, Brooks hit on a winning combination, and it’s reproduced deliciously at Drury Lane.
Written for Teletext.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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