Mel Brooks’s 2001 musical, like the movie on which it is based, always flirted with danger. You might think that today, with the emergence of neo-nazism in Europe and revelations about predatory producers in the US, it was beyond the pale. But judging by the riotous reception given to Raz Shaw’s superb revival, we embrace Brooks’s bonfire of good taste more warmly than ever.
One reason, I suspect, is that audiences are now familiar with the big idea: that Max Bialystock and Leo Bloom, a shyster producer and a nervy accountant, unite to persuade backers to over-invest in a musical about Hitler that is sure to fail. Not only do most people know the plot: they even seem to remember the jokes. When Leo quits his dead-end job and tells his boss: “I’m not going to the toilet, I’m going into showbusiness,” the line is greeted as if it were a well-loved friend.
Far from giving offence, the show has now acquired an extra patina of charm. I’d also say that it’s a sign of liberal progress that we can afford to laugh at the stereotypes of yesteryear. When, for instance, Max and Leo go to visit an epicene director and his assistant mincingly invites them to “walk this way”, we are grownup enough to see that no harm is meant. Similarly, although we are more conscious than ever of the hazards of age, the spectacle of the randy oldsters who bankroll Max’s show tap-dancing with the aid of their walking-frames cheers rather than repels us.
Even the number towards which the whole show builds, Springtime for Hitler, is outrageous rather than off-putting. One reason is that Brooks understood, like Chaplin before him, that there was always an element of kitsch vulgarity to nazism. So here, thanks to Ben Stones’s design and Alistair David’s choreography, we see bespangled chorines sporting sausage-shaped and eagle-crested headgear and goose-stepping with rhythmic enthusiasm. Not only is Brooks ridiculing the Hitlerian love of spectacle; by having the critics hail Springtime for Hitler as a “satirical masterpiece”, he also pokes fun at our own ability to absorb shock.
For all its daring, Brooks’s show is ultimately a nostalgic throwback to vaudeville and a testament to male friendship. Julius D’Silva’s wonderfully exuberant Max is both a conman and a father figure and I love the fact that, in a tribute to Zero Mostel, who created the role in the original movie, stray wisps of black hair snake across his pate. There is also a warmth to D’Silva that takes the sting out of the fact that Max uses sex as a source of capital.
Stuart Neal lends the Joycean Leo the right air of wide-eyed earnestness, and there is fine support from Dale Meeks as an unreconstructed Nazi author and Charles Brunton as the show’s cross-dressing director.
Even though Emily-Mae plays her well, the one joke that now looks past its sell-by date is that of the producers’ Swedish secretary who likes to have sex every day at 11. But this is a headily pleasurable show that, astonishingly, marks Shaw’s debut as a director of musicals and that offers as much fun as you could hope to find on any stage this Christmas.