If the team of Bialystock and Bloom doesn’t ring a bell for you, you need to see more theater. The duo, an invention of the great comedian Mel Brooks, is the centerpiece of the Broadway juggernaut The Producers, which swept the Great White Way like a parade of high-stepping storm troopers back in 2001, seizing a dozen Tony Awards.
Olney Theatre Center is fielding the first regional theater production of the hit show in the Washington metro area, according to the theater’s artistic director Jason Loewith. Running through July 26, it’s a light summertime musical comedy, with a message beneath the glitz and goofiness.
While The Producers is a winning show, director Mark Waldrop’s compact rendition of the Broadway hit isn’t a clean sweep. The central characters — Max Bialystock, the scheming lothario who beds little old ladies to gain backers for his shows, and Leo Bloom, his mousy partner in crime who calls his bookkeeping “creative accounting” — are played with more than an unconscious nod to their forbears in the roles: Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick on Broadway, and Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder in the original 1968 non-musical film. Though Olney’s leads had a slow start on opening night, the duo grows on you until by the 11 o’clock number — a throw-it-all-on-the-stage solo for Michael Kostroff as Bialystock — you’re sold. And then Bloom, a slightly neurotic Michael Di Liberto, pledges fidelity to his partner in crime, and it comes together.
The plot (courtesy of a book by Brooks and Broadway veteran Thomas Meehan) centers around a shady plan to produce an overfunded Broadway flop so the duo can keep the money and close the show, with no one the wiser. But as all harebrained comedic schemes are wont to do, this one goes awry. The original movie starred Mostel as Bialystock and animated, neurotic Wilder in his first major film role. Throughout this show, the DNA of Brooks’ humor and freeform approach find their way to the stage. Kostroff’s off-the-cuff remarks Saturday night and his bulging eyes garnered plenty of guffaws.
For Producers virgins, there’s an uninhibited bawdiness and none-too-subtle bows to burlesque’s risqué roots, not to mention dirty language. But Brooks also pays loving homage to early musical theater and the genius of the American Jewish imagination, which nearly single-handedly birthed this beloved form. Listen for strains of Tin Pan Alley, references to the Ziegfeld Follies and Busby Berkeley show girls. Watch for choreography swiped from Fiddler on the Roof, with nuns dancing a hora, and songs inspired by Rodgers and Hammerstein, Jerome Kern, and Lerner and Loewe. A favorite: Show Boat’s “Old Man River” parody sung by gloomy, pencil-pushing accountants.
Brooks is a contemporary and good friend of Neil Simon — the pair worked together on Sid Caesar’s 1950s television hit Your Show of Shows. But Brooks was also a contemporary of the great and oft-censored comic Lenny Bruce, whose frequent off-color comic riffs and risqué jokes were even banned. Brooks finds common ground in both Simon and Bruce. There’s a sweetness in the relationship between Kostroff’s outgoing risk-taker Bialystock and his neurotic partner, Di Liberto as Bloom (though I wish he were a bit more neurotic). And, of course, there’s a love interest: the buxom Swedish blonde, Ulla, played with a less than convincing accent but an extremely convincing hip twitching dance number by Jessica Jaros.
Bialystock has his hands full, literally, with little old ladies, whom he woos for their investment checks. Choreographer Tara Jeanne Vallee wisely borrows the brilliant choreographic invention of original Broadway director Susan Stroman to recreate “Little Old Lady Land,” a chorus line of walker-wielding, tap-dancing grannies that, together with the swishy song-and-dance number “Keep It Gay,” cement Act I. It’s sung by Jason Graae, playing the aptly named Roger De Bris, an emasculated, ball-gown wearing director of flops. The number has more sequins, step-ball-changes and jazz hands than the Rockettes.
Act II builds to opening night and Brooks’ over-the-top musical number “Springtime for Hitler,” which originated in his 1968 movie. If swastikas and jack boots still cause discomfort — and a companion I was with at Saturday’s opening remarked that her German-born Jewish mother would probably not have been amused — this is not a show for you.
Olney’s production, by necessity, is smaller and less flashy than the original. Missed most are the gorgeous, Amazonian chorines with their perfect teeth, perfect hair, long legs and voluptuous figures; Olney’s smaller chorus of dancers doesn’t compare.
James Fouchard’s sets are too flimsy, wobbling away on stage. Seth Gilbert’s costumes from mid-20th-century street clothes to a chorus line of Nazi brown shirts serve the musical well. Music director Darius Smith leads his eight-piece pit orchestra in creating a far fuller, bolder sound. And credit, too, to Stephen F. Schmidt as Franz Liebkind, the unrepentant Nazi and author of the hoped-for flop Springtime for Hitler, who lives and tends to his sieg heil-ing pigeons in Greenwich Village.
Brooks’ intent is clear: Tear down Hitler and his Nazi Party through parody, emasculation and ridicule. Charlie Chaplin did it in his first talkie, the 1940 satiric masterpiece The Great Dictator. For Brooks, how much more absurd can his satire get than tap-dancing storm troopers, a blonde tenor crooning on the joys of the Anschluss, a chorus panting ambiguously “the Fϋhrer is coming,” and show girls adorned with beer stein and pretzel headdresses? The number is wickedly funny. Brooks forces us to laugh at Hitler. That’s a Jewish victory. And it marks a generational shift in how Jews regard Hitler, though few have had the success Brooks has in toppling him with comedy.
The Producers, through July 26, Olney Theatre Center, 2001 Olney Sandy Spring Road, Olney, tickets: 301-924-3400 or visit www.olneytheatre.org.