THERE is something deeply satisfying about Andrew Carpenter’s production of The Producers at Frome’s Merlin Theatre. It works triumphantly against all the odds that are stacked against it.
The show is the story of a wily Broadway producer, Max Bialystock, and a nervous accountant, Leo Bloom, who plot to put on a stinker of a show, over-finance it, and make off with the over-spend when it bombs on the “great white way.”
They find a script that puts Adolf Hitler and Eva Braun on stage, as hero and heroine of an upbeat Busby Berkeley-style musical comedy – and stage it in a city full of Jews. What could possibly go wrong?
The Merlin is a theatre with a contemporary large flat stage and without the resources to put on a huge Broadway show with lavish sets. So there are none.
It’s a politically incorrect show that ought to be so offensive, in a primly PC world, that it would never get in front of the footlights – staged in a theatre that, in most circumstances, would no longer exist.
The Merlin is one of many small arts venues that lost their public funding (many closed). But the love of the people of this creative town and the drive and commitment of its director Claudia Pepler have kept it going. It is a constant struggle, so the fund-raising efforts of local people and groups are essential and hugely appreciated.
Andrew Carpenter doesn’t think small. He has wanted to stage The Producers since he first saw the professional stage version of Mel Brooks’ outrageous comedy musical in 2004. So with the support of Claudia and the Merlin board, and a hand-picked company of people he has known in his 45 years in amateur theatre, he has put The Producers on stage to the cheers and applause of the first-night audience, and to the benefit of the Merlin’s Lights Up fund-raising appeal.
The show is directed by the multi-talented Martin Dimery, manager of the Cheese & Grain hall and director of Frome Festival (and for many years the lead singer of Sergeant Pepper’s Only Dartboard Band, the best Beatles tribute band). Martin also plays the mad renegade Nazi, Franz Liebkind, whose appalling and unstageable show, Springtime for Hitler, is the planned route to Broadway failure and personal wealth for Bialystock and Bloom, the “producers” of the title.
Davey Evans is Leo Bloom, the neurotic money man who discovers his inner, tap-dancing showman – and finds love with the gorgeous Ulla (Leonie Macaslin). It’s a stunningly good performance from a versatile actor. His twitching nervousness, clutching his baby blue comfort blanket, transforms, step by cautious step, into a classy hoofer who gets the girl.
The glamorous Leonie Macaslin makes the most of her curves, comic timing and great voice as the Swedish girl who turns up to audition and proceeds to transform the run-down office and the prospects of Bialystock and Bloom.
The original show is famed for the Chrysler Building gown worn by the “worst director in the world” Roger De Bris, on his first entrance. That dress is part of the legend of the show, and Steve Huggins makes the most of its shimmering, showy elegance, in a performance of wincing queenly stagecraft. He is almost (but not totally) upstaged by Ryan Hughes as his “common law assistant” Carmen Ghia (I hope all that mincing doesn’t give him back-ache!).
These are five-star comic performances.
Tom Carpenter (who has appeared on BBC’s The Voice) makes the most of his appearance as the Stormtrooper in the spectacular Springtime in Hitler sequence.
The rest of the company, including members of production manager Anne Dimery’s Kairos Theatre Company and choreographer Amy Morgan-Bell’s Dance School, are hilariously everything from Bialystock’s sex-hungry octogenarian “angels” to the chorus of prisoners.
Kerry Bishop, a veteran (like Carpenter) of decades of Frome shows, is the expert musical director, with an experienced on-stage band led by violinist Lyndy Bishop whose klezmer-style playing sets the tone.
And so to “the producer” himself – Andrew Carpenter IS Max Bialystock! He’s a man who will use the talents that nature gave him to fund his shows, who will always find a way to get the show on the (Broadway – or Frome) road and for whom the show will go on, even in the most unprepossessing circumstances with the most unlikely material – including SingSing jail.
The Producers, which has been generously sponsored, is on at the Merlin until Saturday 19th March. It is also raising funds for the Adopt A School campaign of Constructing Excellence South West, encouraging businesses to work with schools to get more talented youngsters into the construction industry.