The Producers
Theatre Royal Brighton, New Road, Monday, April 13 to Saturday, April 17

FOR director Matthew White working on the new touring version of The Producers was a world away from his previous job at the helm of a revived Fred Astaire classic.

“Top Hat very much appeals to an older clientele,” says White. “The Producers seems to be quite wide-ranging as far as I have seen – it certainly has a broader appeal.

“There’s a lot of affection for it from people who have either seen the musical, the original film, or the film of the musical. It’s one of those pieces which seems to be in people’s consciousness. Even if they haven’t seen it they will be familiar with elements like Springtime For Hitler.”

The original film, which told the tale of two Broadway producers deliberately setting out to make a flop, was Mel Brooks’ directorial debut on the big screen.

The 1967 version of the story, which starred Zero Mostel as the conniving Max Bialystock and Gene Wilder as his accountant Leo Bloom putting together a musical version of Hitler’s life story, has provided the touchstone for White’s stage take.

“I never wanted to do a rehash of the West End version,” he says. “The film is more quirky, it has a slightly zany sensibility to it.”

In design terms White has tried to recreate Bialystock’s slightly grubby world at the sharp end of the Broadway dream.

“Top Hat was definitely sophisticated, with the characters in classy surroundings,” he says. “Our design of Bialystock’s office is fantastically shambolic – he has bits of past productions, a mish-mash collection of stuff from his past. The whole sensibility of the piece feels different.”

Another major selling point for this tour is its star cast – who are of a calibre you might expect to find in the West End rather than touring regional theatres.

Joining Cory English as the Machiavellian Bialystock is former One Show presenter and stand-up star Jason Manford as Leo Bloom the weak-willed accountant who hits on the money-making scheme after realising a producer could make more money from a dud than a hit.

“Jason was in Sweeney Todd for six weeks at the end of its West End run,” says White. “It was a way of dipping his toe in the water to see if he liked it.

“He wanted to challenge himself and find a work which would suit him. Leo is a lovely role, he needs to sing, dance and act, do the whole lot, and Jason has really embraced that.

“He’s quite a likeable, cheeky chap, and that affable nature makes it a great role for him. Max is definitely the more sinister of the two – it’s harder to make him loveable, but Cory manages to make him endearing, while at the same time making you fully aware he’s a con man.

“It’s a role which requires somebody who can drive the show forward as well as doing the comedy.”

Manford isn’t the only familiar face in the cast, with Louie Spence taking on actor Roger De Bris’s slightly disturbing companion Carmen Ghia, and Phill Jupitus as Springtime For Hitler’s neo-Nazi scriptwriter Franz Liebkind.

“There was nobody attached when I took this project on,” says White.

“Everybody had to audition – it’s important so they get a familiar with the part and what they feel about it.

“I’m not in favour of people being offered roles without having to work on them and see if they are a good fit.”

For both Spence and Jupitus The Producers tour is a new experience.

“Louie was a stage dancer in Miss Saigon when it was originally conceived, but recently most of his stage work has been pantomime,” says White. “This was a bit of a departure for him, but he’s such a unique personality which the part required.

“It has given us the opportunity to make the character dance. David Badella plays Roger and there is a really touching bond between them – it’s really rather nice.”

Jupitus is something of a musical theatre veteran, having already starred in Hairspray, Spamalot and Urinetown.

“He has always taken over a role, so he has never had the process of being properly rehearsed within the technical process,” he says. “He’s been very committed to the whole process and a pleasure to work with.

“On paper Franz doesn’t have a huge amount – he’s only in two or three key scenes, but Phill is so larger than life whenever he does appear you relish it.”