On the 3rd of November, 2006 I saw The Producers at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane. The Producers is a west-end musical based on the 1968 film. It follows the story of two directors, Bialystock (played by Cory English) and Bloom (played by Reece Shearsmith) who attempt to put on a show that is a total flop, realizing they can make ‘more money from a flop than a hit’. The comic piece was extremely entertaining, being a visual excitement filled with hilarious moments. The scene I will focus on is where Ulla (played by Rachel McDowell) auditions to be in the forthcoming musical singing her own song “When you’ve got it, flaunt it”.
A soft yellow/white wash swept the stage, which, when mixed with the more intense white wash, gave the effect of indoor lighting. Soft spotlights were shone into the centre of stage to focus the audience’s attention to the action happening in the centre of the stage. At this focused centre stage, English and Shearsmith were seated on a copper-coloured sofa looking expectantly at McDowell, who was standing by a piano on stage right.
To find her starting note, she plays a single note on the piano, but an entire scale of notes plays from the orchestra piano but looks like the notes came out of nowhere. English uncrossed his legs looking bewildered, and leered towards the piano to give the impression he was examining it. McDowell, however, remained innocent looking as if the occurrence was normal and shuffled slightly downstage as the audience laughed over the preceding event. Shearsmith looked towards English with an equally shocked but also questioning expression, as if to ask “What just happened?”. English shrugged as his reply and then granted permission for McDowell to begin her song with an encouraging gesture of slightly open arms.
A simple tune accompanied McDowell’s voice in the first part of the song. The short notes in the music made the song very innocent-sounding and the simplicity worked as it contrasted to later parts of the song. Upon the words “strut your stuff” McDowell walked to center stage in four steps, timing each step with the four melodiously sweet beats that followed the sung line. A side step to stage left, and McDowell was by a desk, where she unfastened the single button on her coat and placed the coat on a desk in one swift movement.
Throughout McDowell’s slow, but sure, travel from stage right to left, English and Shearsmith followed McDowell with their gaze, showing they were in awe of her beauty. Their simultaneous movements of head, eyes and shoulders was particularly amusing, as it showed how enthralled the characters were by this woman. Impersonation is always a humorous technique to use in a performance and McDowell did a fabulous job of playing a Swedish lady.
Visually, she was tall, beautiful with blonde hair; very stereotype of a Swedish woman. McDowell commanded her voice brilliantly to show a Swedish accent; v’s were pronounced as w’s and u’s were said for twice as long as would be regular. Choreography and timing were key for entertainment in this point of the play and this was done brilliantly as McDowell continued her song-and-dance routine. On one beat, she thrust her chest at Shearsmith’s eye level, to which Shearsmith widened his eyes. On the next beat, she rotated her hips outwards and Shearsmith averted his gaze to her bottom.
Possibly the most comic moment of this sequence was the one that followed. McDowell turned to the two men and held out her hands in an almost patronizing stance of explanation and, with poor grammar, explained that “now, Ulla dance”. Shearsmith and English showed no response and were still transfixed by her; English even had his mouth hanging in a gaping drool. McDowell turned back towards the audience and looked very focused in the introducing drum beats of the dance. While the audience expected McDowell to then break into a breath-taking dance, she instead wobbled her hips very minimally to the music. The music then broke into a crescendo, to which McDowell jumped and shimmied to several times. This shaking of the breasts caused English to transform his gape into a disbelieving smile and Shearsmith to watch in an embarrassed arouse.
McDowell shimmied towards centre stage and then took a seat in between the two men. She was now to continue her song with more intimacy with the two men, being so close to them. She is oblivious to English’s perverse, whereas the audience realise it. This is a comic dramatic irony, where the audience laughed at the naivety of ‘Ulla’. McDowell then swung her leg slowly in the air, which gave a flash of her undergarments. English’s head instantly dropped as he stared at her crotch. McDowell noticed this and then placed a finger on the underside of his chin, rising it up, so his gaze was no longer focussed on her crotch, and she let off a nervous laugh.
Using repetition, McDowell later in the song was standing stage right and asked they two men if they “remember when Ulla dance”. They both replied concurrently with a prolonged, excited ‘yes’. McDowell then clapped her hands and gleefully stated “Ulla dance again!”. This entire section was particularly amusing and extremely entertaining with its combination of costume, staging, impersonation, sexual humour, song and choreography. It was very unfortunate that The Producers closed on the west end, as it was a brilliantly done musical that should’ve run for ever – and longer.