New Theatre, Oxford, Saturday 4th July, 2015
There are many musicals around that originated as films. This is surely the best of such a bunch – mainly because the source material is so good but also because the original writer, Mel Brooks, made the adaptation himself including writing the songs. In his films, Brooks’s songs are invariably parodies but here he gives us a ‘proper’ Broadway score – heavily drenched in humour, of course.
The plot involves hopeless Broadway producer Max Bialystock (Cory English in the role he was born for) who teams up with hyper-neurotic accountant Leo Bloom (stand-up comic Jason Manford – a revelation!) to engineer a surefire misfire of a show in order to make off with a million dollars apiece. They search for the worst script, hire the worst director and raise the funds via Bialystock’s sideline as a gigolo for the old ladies of New York. The show they produce is a ‘gay romp’ about Adolf Hitler. The show is non-stop funny and gives not a hoot for political correctness. And the score is heaving with catchy tunes and witty lyrics.
As Bialystock, English is a powerhouse, hurling himself around the stage. You’ll never see a funnier heart attack. His number about betrayal treats us to a manic, potted recap of the entire show that is a wonder and a joy to behold.
Jason Manford surprises with his characterisation of the tightly wound Bloom and his singing voice. I come away thoroughly impressed; he should do more musical theatre.
As the flamboyant director Roger De Bris, David Bedella is utterly fabulous, camper than all your Christmases come at once, twinkling and striking poses. De Bris’s portrayal of the Fuhrer is an absolute hoot – Brooks is big on mocking Hitler and the Nazis as a strong weapon against Fascism. If we make fun of tyrants we diminish their power. If we hold them up for lampoonery, we undermine their position. The show-within-the show, Springtime For Hitler is a lot of fun. Glittering swastikas and chorines dressed as Panzer tanks are just the icing on the cake of this festival of bad taste.
As crazed playwright Franz Liebkind, our most surreal stand-up Ross Noble makes his musical theatre debut in a high-energy performance that is as hilarious as it is scary. Wildly staring, shouting and stomping, Liebkind is the swivel-eyed right wing lunatic of today, rewriting the past, bullying others into his point of view – the kind of person that deserves only ridicule. Noble is superbly committed to this larger-than-life caricature and I would love to see him tackle other, perhaps subtler roles.
Tiffany Graves’s vowel-mangling Swedish actress, dancer and receptionist Ulla wrings comedy out of every pout, wiggle and demonstration of the splits. What’s funny is the men’s reactions in a comic tradition that goes back to the Ancient Greeks where human foibles, like lust (and greed) are held up for derision.
There is energetic support from a lively and versatile chorus. The laughs keep coming but there is also, in true musical style, a moment of emotional revelation and a happy ending. Brooks celebrates the genre while poking fun. The result is an unalloyed delight.