Ross Noble, Lesley Joseph and Hadley Fraser will lead the cast of Mel Brooks’ YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN – the classic comedy musical based on the Oscar-nominated smash hit movie.
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Ah, The Producers. Probably our favourite of the glut of movies turned musicals of the past decade or so. The original production was a wonder of un-PC satire that was far and away the best thing Mel Brooks had turned his hand to in years. More than ten years later and the show is well established in the canon of musicals that head out regularly on tour. Has familiarity dulled the humour of the piece?
Arts Theatre, London
Written by Joshua HarmonDirected by Michael Longhurst
Ilan Goodman and Jenna Augen
Acclaimed at Bath last year and sold out at London’s St James Theatre in January, Bad Jews now makes the short hop across town to the Arts Theatre to meet an almost insatiable demand to see the show. Indeed the clamour for tickets has been so strong that it led comedienne Ruby Wax to tweet recently of Bad Jews’ “mostly Jewish audience. If you insult them, they will come”.
The play is provocatively titled because as Harmon admits in the programme, eleven years ago and before a plot had even evolved, he thought it would be “a good title for a play”. Hmm. A dodgy premise for any creative work. Substance needs to come before the packaging and ultimately Bad Jews makes for mediocre drama.
Three Jewish cousins (plus Melody the Christian girlfriend of one cousin) are gathered in New York for the funeral of grandfather Poppy, a Holocaust survivor. Amidst familiar and familial spats of jealousy, rivalry and momentary affection, the plot’s action focusses upon a Jewish necklace (a Chai) that Poppy had kept concealed during his time in the camps.
Religiously committed granddaughter Daphna believes the Chai should rightfully be hers whilst assimilated cousin Liam (who via some family chicanery, already possesses the necklace) is on the cusp of proposing to Melody and plans to give her the Chai in place of a traditional engagement ring. Daphna’s nauseated fury at Liam’s plan is understandable. However where Harmon abuses our disbelief, whose suspension is already hanging by a thread, is in asking us to accept the conceit that WASP Melody would even prefer the battered Chai over a diamond solitaire. It makes for an in-credible pivotal plot-line.
To be fair, Harmon does thread some strands of relevance into his work. His exposition of the vain and arrogant self-belief of Daphna’s piety is spot-on and he offers a further morsel of intellectual meat to chew on as he references the impact of assimilation and “marrying out” upon Judaism’s cultural heritage. Noble arguments and credit too for his attempt to address the impact of the Holocaust upon third generation survivors. But ultimately it’s all packaged up in a bundle of writing that far too often makes for a tedious naivety. Where Arthur Miller once brought a scalpel-like precision to such complex studies of humanity, Harmon wields mallet and chisel and it shows.
Speaking to The Guardian recently Harmon tells of how just before the play opened in Bath, that he had cut a line from the text that referred to the safety in being Jewish today, recognising that the sentiment didn’t accurately reflect the current experience of European Jews. Whilst the edit was necessary, actually the chopped words should never have been written in the first place. For most of the last millennium continental Europe has been a deadly place for Jews – and that’s both before and after Hitler – and Harmon’s failure to acknowledge that continuum, even as he wrote Bad Jews, evidences a worrying ignorance.
And that side-splitting comedy? The programme notes reference Mel Brooks’ The Producers in which Brooks brilliantly lampooned Hitler in his 1968 farce and subsequent musical. However, that The Producers worked at all was because Brooks craftily mocked an evil regime. Here, by contrast, Bad Jews’ audience rather than laughing at the Nazis, are invited to guffaw at a surviving family’s struggles to cope with the Holocaust’s devastating legacy. There’s a whiff of freak-show here and it leaves a nasty taste.
Further credit to some of the performers. Ilan Goodman’s Liam is a focussed channelled force, who notwithstanding the ridiculously Fawlty-esque extremes imposed upon his character, makes us believe in his comfortably assimilated Jewish identity, as well as his love for Melody. Playing his love interest, Gina Bramhill is a strawberry blonde genteel gentile. It’s a novel twist that sees the non-Jew sketched out as a caricatured stereotype, but again and to her credit, Bramhill makes fabulous work of some occasionally ghastly dialogue. That Jenna Augen’s Daphna, almost a year into the play’s run, speaks too often in a squeaky gabble is mind boggling.
Completing the quartet, Joe Coen’s Jonah is the Beavis-type silent one, who too little too late offers an endgame revelation that deserves more analysis from Harmon than the (yet another) sensational moment it is given.
In his song Shikse Goddess, taken from The Last Five Years, Broadway composer Jason Robert Brown, nails the complex and awkward nuances of assimilation with witty yet profound analysis in four minutes. Harmon takes more than an hour and a half to clumsily cover much of the same ground. Somewhere in Bad Jews there could be a good play struggling to emerge. This ain’t it.
Runs to 30th May 2015
Churchill Theatre, Bromley
Music and lyrics by Mel Brooks
Book by Mel Brooks and Thomas Meehan
Jason Manford and Cory English
The headline cast of The Producers is almost a who’s who of today’s popular entertainment scene. Jason Manford, Louie Spence and Phill Jupitus all take principal roles alongside the lesser known (but nonetheless industry greats) Cory English, David Bedella and the stunning Tiffany Graves. They lead a company that delivers flawless performances as they dust off Mel Brooks deliciously dated musical.
The 12 Tony-winning musical wowed Broadway in 2001, but of course the original yarn was spun by Brooks in his 1968 Oscar winning movie – and it is to that film that this touring revival pays homage. The onstage newspaper headlines scream of BJ and Vietnam as shyster Broadway producer Max Bialystock, so richly defined by Zero Mostel in the 60s, slicked-back hair and red smoking jacket, is neatly caricatured by Cory English. Back in the day Gene Wilder defined the nebbish (google it) that is frustrated accountant Leo Bloom. In 2015 Jason Manford (a surprisingly big fella in the flesh) makes the most of his lumbering features to define Bloom’s wondrously hopeless inadequacies. Manford’s anxiety-ridden Bloom seriously exceeds expectations.
The story could be neither more tasteless nor more famous. As humble clerk Bloom realises that were a show to prove a guaranteed flop then amoral producers could sell its rights many times over and embezzle the investors’ cash. Bialystock pounces on this stroke of (criminal) genius and takes Bloom into partnership. Sourcing possibly the worst script in town, Springtime For Hitler written by a crazed former Nazi and hiring Roger De Bris, a disastrous director to helm it, failure is a certainty. Until of course De Bris delivers a Fuhrer who’s camper than Christmas and the Broadway crowds go wild…
Cory English has previous as Bialystock, having played the producer on Drury Lane and he masters the ways of the wily granny-shagger with aplomb, his 11 o’clock number Betrayed being a particular treat. Mel Brook’s Borsht Belt comedy roots (google that too) are manifest in Bialystock’s corny patter, as his unique style merges Sid James’ Carry On smut with a wry sense of self-deprecation that’s as New York Jewish as pastrami on rye.
The biggest butt (pun intended) of Brook’s gags is of course Hitler and the Nazis – and what better way to humiliate a truly evil force than to laugh at it (With a momentary pause to sadly wish “if only” that could be the case in today’s troubled world). Along the way however and in alphabetical order, blacks, gays, Irish, Jews and Swedes are all mercilessly mocked in a show that makes for one big guilty pleasure.
David Bedella’s De Bris is a high priest of high camp. Preening and pouting, he is poured into his dress – and gives Hitler just the right touch of manic megalomania too. Louie Spence as his posturing assistant Carmen Ghia has a modest role but milks it magnificently with a movement that is as technically brilliant as it his hilarious. And whoever thought of Phill Jupitus to play the Nazi Franz Liebkind deserves the Iron Cross. The comedian’s (rarely seen) fat, pasty, lederhosen-clad legs add visual genius to the deluded German. Be in no doubt, Jupitus cannot sing and his almost solo number, Haben Sie gehört das deutsche Band will stay with me for a long time.
Meanwhile, leading lady Tiffany Graves’ blonde bombshell Ulla simply steals her every scene. Graves’ accent is wonderfully caricatured, her singing sensational whilst her dance and cartwheeling/backflipping movement is jaw-dropping. Sporting fabulous tresses (kudos to wig mistress Sally Tynan) Graves is every inch the (not so dumb) Swedish Blonde.
Magnificence elsewhere from Lee Proud’s choreography, with the big numbers of Along Came Bialy (complete with denture wielding tap-dancing geriatrics) and Springtime For Hitler evidencing a company well drilled in dance routines that blend professional precision with immaculate comic timing. And look out for the unexpected nod to the Vulgarian (aka Germanic) Doll On A Music Box routine from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang as the Springtime number kicks off.
Bravo too to Andrew Hilton’s nine-piece band who give Brooks’ compositions the bold and brassy treatment they deserve.
The Producers’ producers have clearly piled their cash (or their investors’ ?) into the cast and it shows as Matthew White directs a magnificent 5* flawless troupe. But the un-inspiring scenery wobbles, the tank-gun helmets of the dancing Nazi showgirls look like they are Blue Peter inspired cardboard creations and unforgivably, Hitler’s moustache fell off in his big number Heil Myself! Bedella to his credit gamely played on – but where were the professional production values? The show’s future audiences deserve a little better.
As entertainment, this touring production of The Producers provides a sensational night out at the theatre. Top notch actors, delivering top notch routines. It makes for one of those rare nights when cheeks will ache from grinning. If you love comedy and musicals it’s unmissable. Brilliant, irreverent, hilarious and all performed by one of the best companies on the road today.
Plays until 14th March, then on tour.