The Producers — Mel Brooks’ Tony Award-winning musical about the eponymous pair of producers trying to get rich fast — is just about as Broadway as it gets. With big characters and even bigger numbers, Hild Bede Theatre (HBT) sure had their work cut of for them. While the cast and crew certainly made a valiant effort to make the annual HBT event worth the unusually expensive £8 student tickets, the show lacked in production values and confident direction. Luckily for them, some outstanding individual performances very nearly made up for these shortcomings.
What the production should certainly be commended for is getting the big musical numbers right. Set pieces such as “I Wanna Be a Producer”, “Keep It Gay” and “Heil Myself” were an absolute joy to watch and the performers’ energy was positively infectious. Choreographer Kennedy Cassy (with the help of cast members Will Emery and Sophie Allen) should be commended for elaborate yet sleek numbers, some of which would not look out of place on a more professional stage.
Bróccán Tyzack-Carlin delivered an appropriately smarmy yet charming performance as Max Bialystock, though — just like Andrew Shires’ hilariously overblown Nazi Franz Liebking — he tended to go too big too fast, and looked visibly exhausted by the end of some numbers. Much better paced were performances by Charlie Keable (Roger Debris) and Will Emery (Carmen), who made their characters’ glittering gay lives the envy of the whole audience. Finola Southgate easily stole the show, turning the utterly objective Ula into a sultry force to be reckoned with. I almost wish she’d gone rogue and kicked Bialystock and Bloom (Joe McWilliam) to the curb so she could continue to show off her stellar voice.
Luckily for the audience, there were very few instances of Dead-Eyed Chorus, with the majority of the cast thoroughly engaged at all times and visibly comfortable with the dance routines. Special mention, however, must be made of Sophie Allen — who should never stop dancing — and the unquestionable chorus MVPs Ed Wheatley and Elliot Mather. They were utterly committed to every random part they played, usually to hilarious effect. Wheatley’s Costume Designer Kevin and Mather’s Churchill were particular delights to keep an eye out for.
Unfortunately, despite strong performances, the show was visibly lacking in direction, and it was during the less flashy moments where this was most evident. The characterisation of Leo Bloom was very inconsistent, and I could never tell if he was meant to be a nervous Average Joe or caricatured neurotic mess. It certainly helped that McWilliam’s vocals were head and shoulders above the rest of cast, otherwise it would have been a rather forgettable performance.
Similarly, the baby blanket episode and the hilarious recap song “Betrayed” — scenes that should have left the audience breathless from laughter — fell flat. Both needed a healthy dose of imaginative blocking and better pacing. Blocking and pacing issues were also evident in smaller, more intimate numbers such as “That Face”, which lacked energy. It seemed that outside the big song-and-dance numbers, the actors were simply left to walk and shimmy uncertainly across the stage. The list of missed opportunities could go on: the running gag of Bloom getting his butt slapped, for example, should have been met by ever-escalating reactions from McWilliam, yet he seemed to be making the exact same face every time. First-time director Zephy Losey did do an admirable job pulling together such a large-scale production, but the fact that the latter half of the second act lost all energy did not go unnoticed by the audience.
Other aspects of the production were pretty well executed. Costume designer Kitty Briggs did a fantastic job of dressing the cast of twenty-something in various amounts of glitter, though it seems I will forever be waiting for a student production to put police officers in something other than skinny black jeans. Another item waiting to be ticked off my student musical bucket list is a band that doesn’t drown out the singers, though they did at least sound well rehearsed. In fact, the only major problem with the music was that the transition pieces often weren’t long enough, making for some awkward moments while the audience waited for the next scene to start. Lighting was used sparsely and effectively — well done to whoever made those swastika gobos — and lighting changes were (almost too) snappy. Scene changes, however, bordered on being overlong and it did not always make sense why some took place behind closed curtains and others in full audience view. Either way, they almost always revealed a disappointingly sparse set.
Other shows certainly have provided better executed performances with higher production values for a much lower price. If you have always wanted to see The Producers and don’t mind pricey tickets, though, the show is definitely worth seeing for the brilliant performers and big numbers.