The Theatre at the Mill Summer Youth Group do justice to Mel Brooks' hilarious musical satire
After six years on Broadway, three in the West End, US and UK tours and a record haul of 12 Tony Awards, The Producers is one of those shows you’d need to be, well, the flailing theatrical impresarios of the title to screw up.
Adapted from writer-director Mel Brooks' Oscar-winning 1968 movie debut, The Producers may concern ‘the worst play ever written’ – about the rise of Nazism in glorious Germany – yet this is a musical comedy that has won the hearts of millions.
Tonight’s amateur production, directed by Peter Corry and starring Newtownabbey’s Theatre at the Mill Summer Youth Group, is, surprisingly, the first time The Producers has graced a Northern Ireland stage.
Those who have made the journey to the Mossley theatre – just nine miles from Belfast but seemingly a world away to listen to some people in tonight's audience – are rewarded with an absurdly entertaining evening in one of County Antrim’s most pleasant new arts venues.
Having caught The Producers in London in 2007 (and watched the film more times than is perhaps wise), this reviewer is delighted to report that Corry’s young performers are just as funny and engaging as the original stars.
Aaron Kavanagh, from Carrickfergus, and Jamie Ewing, from Newtownards, make Max Bialystock and Leo Bloom their own – no mean feat, considering Brooks’s larger-than-life creations have previously been played by, respectively, Zero Mostel and Nathan Lane, and Gene Wilder and Matthew Broderick, amongst other luminaries.
On first sighting of Kavanagh, there is a worry that a 'thin' Max might not work (the character’s weight sets up numerous punchlines), but the short-tall dynamic between he and Ewing works just as well as any fat-thin Max-Leo pairing (and in amusingly incongruous fashion they keep the 'fat' jokes anyway).
As the unscrupulous Max and his downtrodden accountant hatch their scheme to ‘make more money with a flop than with a hit’, Newtownabbey is regaled with the likes of ‘We Can Do It’, ‘I Wanna Be a Producer’, ‘Keep It Gay’, ‘Prisoners of Love’ and, of course, ‘Springtime for Hitler’, and they go down a storm.
Yet the matter of The Producers’ play-within-a-play, Springtime for Hitler: A Gay Romp with Adolf and Eva at Berchtesgaden – to give it its full title – seems to unsettle the audience somewhat.
At first, as its author, the escaped Nazi Franz Liebkind (an excellent turn by Ryan Greer), pins swastika armbands to Max and Leo, and the Second World War gags begin to fly (‘Hitler was a better painter than Churchill! He could paint an entire apartment in one afternoon! Two coats!’), some people shift uncomfortably in their seats.
But by the time Samuel Moore, as the flamboyant theatrical ham Roger De Bris, playing an utterly camp Führer, cracks into ‘Heil Myself’, raucous laughter has drowned out any misgivings.
In the gumboots and lederhosen of Liebkind, the winningly manic Greer very nearly steals the show, and Moore isn’t far behind. But, really, the whole cast, most of whom appear to be teenagers, deliver Brooks’s timeless material with the flair and comic timing of old pros.
Sure, there are a couple of prop incidents and syncing issues, but the fact that there’s only a couple of them in close to three hours simply underlines how much care this young troupe have put into this. The energy never flags, and the ensemble more than deserves its standing ovation.
So, then, Peter Corry is not ‘the worst director to have ever lived’, and the Summer Youth Group aren’t ‘the worst actors in town’. The Producers is a hit. Indeed, as Max exclaims the first time he sees Swedish sex bomb Ulla, played here by Maria Sweeney: ‘Oooh wah weee wah wah wow wowie!’
The Producers runs at the Theatre at the Mill, Newtownabbey, until August 11.