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 The Theatreguide.London Review

The Producers
Theatre Royal Drury Lane     Autumn 2004 - January 2007

The Producers is a great, old-fashioned big brassy Broadway musical, the kind they just don't make any more. And, if only for the first two months, it features a genuine larger-than-life Broadway star, also an almost extinct breed. Which means hie thee hence, in a hurry.

I have friends who envy me for having seen Broadway legends like Ethel Merman, Ray Bolger, Mary Martin and Robert Preston onstage. It is quite possible that twenty years from now you will be bragging to your friends that you saw Nathan Lane in his prime, but only if you don't hesitate.

(Famously, the musical, which won all the awards going on Broadway last year, was to star Richard Dreyfuss in London, but he dropped out just days before the first preview, so an emergency call went in to Nathan Lane, who had starred - and won all the awards going - in New York, to let them open the show here. But he's staying only through mid-January.)

The show is, of course, based on Mel Brooks' hilarious 1967 film about a Broadway producer and his hapless accountant who come up with a scheme to make millions with a flop show, only to have their guaranteed loser turn into a hit.

The musical - script by Brooks and Thomas Meehan, songs by Brooks - follows the original pretty closely, including a big production number from the show-within-the-show, 'Springtime for Hitler'.

The songs are more than serviceable, though it is unlikely that any will become standards, and the show is structured more like the 1950s musicals Brooks grew up with, with set pieces and production numbers rather than integrated book songs, than the more recent semi-operatic mode - that is to say, more Adler and Ross than Webber and Rice, more Jerry Herman than Stephen Sondheim.

And of course there is Mel Brooks' to-hell-with-political-correctness gag-a-minute comic style, a lily that director/choreographer Susan Stroman has happily gilded by encouraging her stars to add as much shtick as they can squeeze in, so that barely thirty seconds go by at any point without a verbal or sight gag of some sort.

From mugging to double-takes, from nuns dancing the hora (Don't ask) through Nazi pigeons (Please don't ask) to a dancing line of little old ladies with Zimmer frames (I warned you), she adds her own layers of comic invention to the goings-on, even finding a way to create a show-stopping Busby Berkeley effect for the Springtime for Hitler number.

And striding majestically through it all, like the master of his domain, is Nathan Lane, truly a star of the absolutely top magnitude.

Not only is he funny - he does things with double takes that acting students will study for years - but he has the unfakeable magnetism and authority of a star. From the very minute he appears onstage, you sense the presence of a master and happily put yourself in his hands, to be taken to levels of sheer joy only a star can provide.

Co-star Lee Evans is himself a master physical clown, and he brings all his skills and personality to the role of Lane's shnook of a co-conspirator. For all his rubber-limbed cleverness, though, Evans' performance seems muted.

One can only guess that it was built to bounce off Richard Dreyfuss's, and that he hasn't had the chance to raise it to the level of broad playing that Lane's performance sets.

The show is not perfect and, unless they are very lucky in choosing Lane's replacement in January, it may run into trouble when he leaves (as it did in New York).

Axiomatically, all musicals have second-act problems,and - despite the hilarious Springtime for Hitler sequence - the energy level of The Producers drops noticeably after the interval.

Fans of the film will understand this - the Dick Shawn role, of the overaged beatnik, has legitimately been cut as too outdated. But what Brooks has put in its place is simply not nearly as funny. And invention too obviously flags near the end, with a soppy courtroom scene stolen bodily from Hello Dolly!

Also troublesome is that fact that, although the script includes several colourful and potentially scene-stealing roles - the sexy secretary, the Nazi playwright, the gay director and his even more flamboyant assistant - and the cast includes some first-rate people - in the same order, Leigh Zimmerman, Nicolas Colicos, Conleth Hill and James Dreyfus - they have all been directed to give constrained and generic performances that fade into the background.

It is partly because they rather than the stars carry much of the second act that the energy level drops so precipitously.

Will the show be worth seeing after Nathan Lane leaves in January? Of course. If all you want is a fun night out, this is an ideal choice. If you want to experience some of the razzmatazz of an old-fashioned Broadway musical, this is a special opportunity.

But if you want to see what just might be the last of a nearly extinct breed, a real Broadway star, then get there quick.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review of The Producers - Drury Lane Theatre 2004