THE PRODUCERS - NOVEMBER 2022
Director - Gina Thorley
Musical Directors - Katie Hickson/Martin Paterson
Choreographer - Gina Thorley/Molly Moffitt-McGrath
By Mel Brooks
Winchester Theatre Royal 9th - 12th November 2022
Max Bialystock - Wesley Buckeridge
Leo Bloom - Nico Bray
Roger DeBris - Daniel Williams
Carmen Ghia - Simon Meanwell-Ralph
Franz Liebkind - David Tatnall
Ulla Inga Hansen Benson Yonsen Tallen Hallen Swaden Svanson - Molly Moffitt-McGrath
Featured Dancers - Amarantha Fennell-Wells, Kimberley James, Olivia Conroy, Rachel Potter
Adrian Hickford - Kevin the Costume Designer, Storm Trooper Mel
Amarantha Fennell-Wells - Scott the Choreographer
Amy Leddy - Police Sergeant, Funny Rejected Chorus Girl
Anne Croudass - Hold Me/Touch Me
Charlotte Upfold - Ticket Taker #1
Chris Salter - Jack LaPidus (Wandering Minstrel)
Conner Handstock - Soloist Stormtrooper (Springtime for Hitler), Bryan the Set Designer
Cressida Bullough - Mrs Marks (Leo's Boss)
Isabel Wylde - Ticket Taker #2
Juliet Surridge - Donna Dinsmore (Little Wooden Boy)
Kimberley James - Lick Me/Bite Me, Shirley the Lighting Designer
Lydia Simpson - Officer O'Reilly
Max Bullough - Jason Green (Haben Zeiger…)
Olivia Conroy - Usherette #1
Penny Bullough - Judge
Rachel Potter - Kiss Me/Feel Me
Sally Male - Prison Trustee
Shannon Cronin - Usherette #2
Steve Gleed - Storm Trooper Rolf, Solo Man First Nighter (Opening Night)
When this glorious romp of a musical was first presented in London, one critic described is as “A defiant raspberry blown in the face of political correctness”. There you have it in a nutshell, and even though now we’re now a few years down the line, and there are some who might try to tell us what and what not to laugh at (don’t get me started!), it’s heartening to see that shows such as this are still being performed, and being greeted with laughter and cheers. This was definitely the case with WMOS’s delightful production at the Theatre Royal, which at the final curtain was greeted with cheering applause, and even standees. This is the tale of down-at-heel Broadway Producer Max Bialystock and his timid accountant Leo Bloom, who on the strength of a chance observation from Leo, embark on the outrageous (yet strangely plausible) scheme to make their fortunes by over-subscribing investments in a play so appalling that its failure would be instantaneous. After an arduous search, they find what they’ve been looking for: Springtime For Hitler, a paean of praise to the Fuhrer, written by one Franz Liebkind (the English translation of the surname is genius!), a certifiable pigeon-keeping German playwright. And from there on in... you just have to “go with it!”
And “go with it” WMOS most definitely did. Following the rightly-deserved success of their hilarious and charming Me And My Girl earlier this year, they’ve now opted for a rather different style of Musical Comedy – still hilarious, and still charming, although a lot of the charm here might be viewed as being in somewhat dubious taste! This, of course, is entirely intentional (the show, as with the original film, being the creation of that comic master Mel Brooks), and it is to the credit of WMOS that Gina Thorley’s elegantly directed production ensures that nothing ever “overbalances” – we are in safe and assured hands throughout, and therefore accept happily every eccentric twist, turn and character set before us. The equally elegant and enjoyable choreography comes courtesy again of Gina Thorley, and Molly Moffitt-McGrath....and more on the latter in a minute! Katy Hickson’s Musical Direction was first-class, not least in respect of the fantastic ensemble singing and harmonies; and the excellent 10 piece band, under the baton of Martin Paterson, assured us that we were in for a great night from the outset. I’m aware that I’m using the word Elegant a lot in this review, but it’s used to greatest compliment, and I’ll also use it to describe the settings in the show – the show demands a lot, and the designs were always excellent – and in the case of the crucial office, in which much of the action takes place, ingenious – even down to the delightful sight-gag that opens the second act. Even the last touring production of the show opted out of that, and it’s a priceless moment, one the Theatre Royal audience certainly appreciated.
A big part of the show’s overall fun is/are the hardworking Ensemble, and in some cases you had to be quick to spot the sheer number of individual guises. A veritable army of well-defined and funny cameo performances constantly unrolling before us, and all superbly costumed throughout. Again, this is a show with heavy costume demands, and the costumes in this production were terrific, for ensemble and principals alike. Anyone who saw Me And My Girl earlier in the year will know that the WMOS Costume team, headed by Jo Barker, are a guarantee of excellence. Also excellent were the lighting and sound designs of Tony Lawther – the sound balance particularly impressive, ensuring that every line and lyric came clearly across.
Given the tale and tone of the show, it’s hardly surprising that the principal roles are (and need to be) larger than life, and in the role of Franz Liebkind, the bonkers German playwright, David Tatnall (himself a former superb Max Bialystock) barnstormed the stage to hilarious vocal and physical effect, receiving huge audience approval in each of his musical numbers. Franz, of course, is the author of the jaw-dropping Springtime For Hitler, and the World’s Worst Play needs the World’s Worst Director to ensure its fate. Enter Roger De Bris, and his “common law assistant”(!) Carmen Ghia (every character name is a treat in itself!), played respectively by Daniel Williams and Simon Meanwell-Ralph, whose cheerful and infectious dual-flamboyance make us instantly eager to see what they’re going to bring to Franz’s play....and their opening scene reaches fresh heights when they are joined by their production team (who share the same house!) for the distinctly double-edged and priceless number ‘Keep It Gay’. And did they ever!
It’s only a matter of time before Love Interest walks into Max’s office, in the form of Ulla, a stunning Swedish Triple-Threat. Max and Leo are instantly smitten....although only one of them will ultimately win her heart (and vice versa). Molly Moffitt-McGrath, last seen as the man-chasing minx Lady Jacqui in WMOS’s Me And My Girl, is a young stunner of a performer, encapsulating that mixture of sweetness and assurance so vital for this character. Her singing is delightful (when she says “Now Ulla belt”, you’d better believe it); and at the risk of being put in prison for saying this, her spectacular pair of pins, which she uses to full effect, somehow seem to have grown even longer in the second act! Her dancing was high among the joys of this production.
Any production of The Producers stands or falls in its casting of Max and Leo, and this one unequivocally stood tall. Max is a difficult role to convey – a shamelessly amoral character, he somehow has to remain sympathetic and even lovable, in order that we root for him and the success of his deeply dishonest scheme. Wesley Buckeridge won us over at once – first seen bemoaning his fate, deeply disillusioned, but evidently with some fight left in him. When Leo Bloom walks unsuspectingly into his life, Max suddenly finds his old self again, and to watch Wesley’s performance develop and grow throughout the evening was a joy, culminating in a glorious performance of that fiendishly difficult eleven-o’-clock number ‘Betrayed’, which he delivered flawlessly, embellishing with some laugh-out-loud original business. And then we have Leo Bloom, Max’s unexpected partner-in-crime, played by Nico Bray, making a sensational debut appearance with WMOS. An absolute little dynamo of a performer, his singing, dancing and acting were bang-on, and his talent for onstage physical comedy was the finest I’ve seen in many a moon. And just when we thought we’d seen him do it all, he pulled the rug from under our feet with his rendition of ‘Til Him’, the unexpected (and only truly emotional) moment of the show. He sang it beautifully, he and Wesley acted the scene beautifully, and it’s at this point that we the audience suddenly realise we don’t simply like these two adorable reprobates. We love them. And both Wesley and Nico pulled it off superbly.
Fun Fact: Mel Brooks’ initial inspiration for Max Bialystock was a real Broadway Producer, who, like Max in the play, financed his shows by granting certain “unmentionable” favours to rich little old ladies! You couldn’t make it up. Thankfully for us, Mel Brooks saw fit to immortalise it. And thankfully too, WMOS set it before us splendidly.
Arriving at the Theatre Royal, Winchester, an old traditional theatre, I was given my customary warm welcome by Lorraine Morgan and her front of house team and took my place in the stalls for what I was hoping would be another triumphant performance by a very talented society. I was not to be disappointed. The Producers, written by Mel Brooks, is based on his own 1967 film of the same name and tells the farcical story of a failing producer, Max Bialystock and his new sidekick, a boring weak accountant, who spots a way that you can make more money with a flop than a success and so they agree a plan....
The eleven piece band, led by Katie Hickson and conducted by Martin Patterson were terrific and started with real pace and attack from the outset. When the curtain was drawn we were treated to a simple yet effective set with a plain cityscape backdrop and the performance got underway and it became very evident, very quickly that the cast were here to enjoy themselves and their movement was with purpose and with energy. Each member knew where they were supposed to be and at what time. Not a note, or step, out of time. The choreography was simple and yet quite effective and the whole cast had obviously been well drilled and well rehearsed by Director Gina Thorley and Molly Moffitt-McGrath. Bravo.
The scene changes were swift and, with a lot of the scenery flown in, was quick and efficient with hardly any "blackout" and that there was, was with low level ambient lighting and an underscore. Credit here to Angie Barkes and her backstage crew. The sound was spot on, and the lighting really enhanced the overall effect of the staging and had been programmed and focussed well by Tony Lawther and his team.
To add to the visual effects from the staging and lighting was the most fabulous array of bright, camp and very effective costumes, and so many of them. I'm sure that the costume team led by Jo Barker, Pam Jones and their team had their work cut out and I'm sure many a long night was spent, however it was most certainly worth it. It was quite a lavish performance.
The performances from the principals, as ever with WMOS, was as close to professional as you can get at this level, with Wesley Buckeridge as Max Bialystock and Nico Bray (a newcomer to Winchester) as the eponymous Leo Bloom, and were of a very high standard. They worked very well together as a pair, fitted the characters perfectly and could bounce off each other (and in places physically!), They were very ably backed up by Daniel Williams as Roger DeBris and Simon Meanwell-Ralph as his PA Carmen Ghia and they, like Wesley and Nico, played off each other with real confidence. Throw into the mix Molly Moffitt-McGrath as the sexy Swedish siren Ulla and fantastic over the top performance by David Tattnell as Franz Liebkind and this was a first rate line up. The principals were also confidently backed up by Anne Croudass as Hold Me/Touch Me and Conner Handstock as the Stormtrooper whose individual cameo roles were, again, delivered with great enthusiasm and skill.
This is a show, like so many this year, that will remain long in the memory. A first class and first rate polished performance from an excellent society. Well done WMOS, this was a top job.
Brash, Bonkers, Blousey, Brave (and very Brooks)
When I think of Mel Brooks, the creator of the 1968 film, and the subsequent stage musical The Producers, I always think of that scene in Blazing Saddles and a man who saw humour in the most bizarre of scenes and events. Known for his satirical wit and Jewish upbringing, he was unafraid to parody something as seriously unfunny as Adolf Hitler, upset a lot of people who wouldn’t back it and go on to win an Oscar for it.
The Producers seems at first, as the curtain opens at the Theatre Royal Winchester, an odd choice for WMOS who despite pushing the boundaries in recent years with shows such as Made In Dagenham, are better known for their G&S and operatic background. The only thing this show has in common with its traditional historical fare is an overture which, with its big band brassy vaudeville sound, sets the tone for a rather clever comedy musical.
The chorus numbers are colourful, choreographed impeccably by Gina Thorley and Molly Moffitt-McGrath (more of her later) and the dancing – including tap, ballroom and Broadway, Busby Berkeley-ish routines, is faultless, all backed by a brass-dominated band led by local veteran conductor Martin Paterson. Occasionally the accompaniment is louder than the vocals, especially in the intros to musical numbers, but that could be just a balance thing where I was sitting.
The plot? Take an Oliver Hardy-like central character, a down-on-his-luck (and heels) Broadway musical producer called Max Bialystock whose latest musical is a terrible flop and introduce him to a Stan Laurel-esque Leopold Bloom, a nervy, energetic, naïve accountant and – wham – the stage is set by the third number. The two unlikely partners in crime come up with a scheme that by swindling hordes of oversexed rich old biddies out of their savings and by putting on a show that is sure to be a flop, they will end up with $2m in their presently empty safe.
Wesley Buckeridge, a familiar face at WMOS, is not only convincing as Bialystock but lives the character as if it were his own. Big, bawdy and brash, his character is a perfect comic match for newcomer Nico Bray who plays Leo Bloom with a blue security blanket and such nervous energy throughout that it’s difficult to see when he draws breath. An outstanding performance from this young man with perfect comic timing, slapstick, silent-movies-mime skills are perfectly married to a high-pitched but always audible acting and singing voice, redolent of Jerry Lewis.
So far so good – this is when it gets really interesting (if a tad bizarre), as the diddling duo choose a script that is bound to offend and flop in equal measure in the form of a glitzy send up of Adolf ‘Elizabeth’ Hitler and the Nazi party called Springtime for Hitler, written by a larger than life, pigeon fancying ex-Nazi in lederhosen and German WW2 helmet, Franz Liebkind, played with customary over the top enthusiasm and gusto by David Tatnall.
To seal the fate of the musical for sure they persuade gay director Roger DeBris, and his ‘common-law assistant’ camp Carmen Ghia to come on board; Carmen, in return, invites Max and Leo to “walk this way”, an obvious but familiar camp comedy line amongst many. Hilarious performances from Daniel Williams and Simon Meanwell-Ralph respectively as the couple of outrageous queens who are sure to bring disaster to the opening night, and therefore success for Max and Leo.
Just when you think there can’t be any more stereotypes left to send up enter Ulla, the blonde bombshell, the long-legged Swedish secretary who has an eye on stardom and likes to have sex at 11am. Played uncannily well by Molly Moffitt-McGrath, who struts, strides, sings and dances her way through the part with consummate ease, Ulla and Leo strike up the kind of relationship that Max can only dream of. Her solo number ‘When you got it, flaunt it’ tells all you need to know about Ulla. Not surprisingly, Mollie is responsible for much of the choreography too. She is one talented lady.
So by the end of a rather long first half (at 85 minutes it’s as long as any first half ever needs to be) the scene is set for opening night of the show-within-the-show. We see the stage, with some impressive flown-in scenery, transformed into a vaudeville version of the Reichstag Nazi headquarters with goosestepping Nazis in glittery swastikas and a musical number, ‘Springtime for Hitler’, that is so outrageous it’s hilarious: “Don’t be stupid / Be a smarty / Come and join the Nazi party”.
At this point, anyone who takes offence could be missing the point – that Mel Brooks, as a Jew, could get his two Jewish characters to put on a show that satirises the Nazis and ridicules Hitler’s famous love of spectacle. To cap it off, the ’reviews’ in the paper the next day, to Bialystock & Bloom’s dismay, ironically hail the show as a ‘satirical masterpiece’ and so the downfall of the producers’ dreams begins.
My over-riding impression is one of awe, mixed with the feeling that the show is brilliant because it is done so well by WMOS, who have built an enviable reputation on the professionalism and standard of their shows. If it had been a mediocre performance it could have been the offensive flop that Max and Leo had intended for Springtime for Hitler.
The Nazi and gay references sail pretty close to the wind (especially considering the date today) which is why I include the word ‘brave’ in my headline. To get away with it and do justice to Mel Brooks’ intentions is no accident, these guys have pulled it off and some. Bravo, WMOS.
There are tickets left to see The Producers and I recommend you snap them up before it finishes its run tomorrow (Saturday) when there is also a matinée performance.