The Producers

(Lyric Theatre)


It knocked the socks off ’em on Broadway, where it has been the surprise hit of the early 21st Century. Mel Brooks’ live version of his 1968 movie has outsold any show of the last 30 years, its success attributed to its rerun of the old-style formula of spectacular design and song-and-dance routines.

Very much a send-up of the whole showbiz industry, The Producers centres on the attempt of two conniving entrepreneurs to make money from investors by setting up a guaranteed lemon — which rebounds on them by being a hit.

Satirical targets include Broadway producers’ choice of writers and directors, the casting process, performers’ superstitions and the theatre’s gay milieu. Producer Max Bialystock demonstrates a twist on cast-couching as he sells his middle-aged body to entrap finance from a bevy of little-ol’-ladies.

Reg Livermore and Tom Burlinson are excellent as the two producers, Burlinson particularly memorable for the depiction of his various forms of paranoia/hysteria. As their chosen scriptwriter, nutty closet Nazi Franz Leibkind, Bert Newton in lederhosen demonstrates surprising versatility and knees. As Swedish wannabe actress Ulla, Chloe Dallimore has all the physical attributes as well as impressive comic and dancing talent.

Tony Sheldon plays the role of cross-dressing director Roger Debris in debonaire style, while my favorite performer in the whole show is Grant Piro as Carmen Ghia, Debris’s sidekick, memorable for his gliding exits. As the show’s one decent singer, Benjamin McHugh displays a fine tenor voice.

The cast are uniformly top rate, whether acting, singing or dancing. The support cast (I counted 22 performers in the curtain calls) play a dazzling range of characters, whether as old ladies on walking frames, German soldiers, theatre-goers and ushers, in addition to a lot of smaller roles. Costume-changing between the rapidly changing scenes must be frantic. Peter Casey’s 18-piece orchestra play well, if rather too brassy for my liking. Amplification of the music, including the miked singers, is somewhat excessive.

Yet The Producers itself is a puzzle in being such a hit despite the mediocrity of many of its ingredients. The songs are for the most part contrived and unmemorable. The script is ordinary. The humour is distinctly unsubtle, often gross and not particularly original. No characters are particularly endearing.

Its success is based on the sheer quality of the performances, choreography, ensemble singing and the very expensive design and lighting. Sets (including awe-inspiring set changes) and costumes are brilliant. The show supposedly and not surprisingly cost $8 million to bring to Australia. But I can’t see it enduring as an iconic musical. Unlike the 20th Century classics of the musical repertoire with their solid combination of book and music, I cannot imagine The Producers having any success in the hands of future amateur companies.

Something else troubles me about this show. Why is it that the audience-within-the-show of “Springtime for Hitler” liked it so much, against the producers’ expectations? And what did the producers of The Producers have in mind when packaging for them (and us) an entertaining camp song-and-dance Hitler? Any advertising copywriter will tell you that to get an audience laughing is the surest way to soften negative feelings about a product. Silly old Adolf, our young audiences may think – some sort of naughty 20th century buffoon.

Hannah Arendt spoke of the “banality of evil” when observing the trial of the last top Nazi to be caught, Eichmann. It would be disturbing if the popular banality of The Producers were to sow the seeds of rehabilitation of one of the most evil specimens of the human race.

Running in Brisbane 18 March-30 April 2005, then Sydney

— John Henningham
(Performance seen: Sat 19th March 2005)