‘The Producers’ at Olney Theatre Center

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Camp it up with the comic free-for-all that is the Olney Theatre Center’s take on Mel Brooks’ Tony Award-winning musical The Producers. Become your very own disrupter of your very own straight-laced, most likely politically correct life-style. Political correctness be damned in this instance.

Michael Kostroff (Max Bialystock). Photo by Stan Barouh.
Michael Kostroff (Max Bialystock). Photo by Stan Barouh.

Brooks’ The Producers is primed and pumped up under the gleefully spirited pacing and attitude of the well-credited veteran Broadway/Off-Broadway and Olney Director Mark Waldrop. Add the torrid energetic hand of Music Director Darius Smith’s fast pacing of his nine-member band through almost two dozen musical numbers, along with the inspired lunacy and manic verve of the 20-member cast from the featured players to the often double-cast ensemble as well as Tara Jeanne Valle’s happy feet choreography. Then, add in some visuals with lavish costumes by Seth M. Gilbert.

They all succeed in making The Producers far from subtle; nor would I want it any other way. The Producers is a cheery brute force aimed directly to kick away the staid and tight.

The Producers was first introduced as an inspired Mel Brooks movie in 1968. In 2001 it was turned into a musical that garnered 12 Tony Awards including Best Musical, Best Book of a Musical, and Best Musical Score with music and lyrics by Mel Brooks and book by Mel Brooks and Thomas Meehan. The show ran for over 2,500 performances.

Michael Kostroff (Max Bialystock), Jessica Jaros (Ulla), and Michael Di Liberto (Leo Bloom). Photo by Stan Barouh.
Michael Kostroff (Max Bialystock), Jessica Jaros (Ulla), and Michael Di Liberto (Leo Bloom). Photo by Stan Barouh.

For those less familiar with the show’s underpinnings, the musical focuses on a washed-up, self-described “King of Broadway” producer named Max Bialystock (a splendid, physically rich, playful, strong-voiced Michael Kostroff who has been playing dear Max in regional productions throughout the USA). Then there is his timid push-over accountant Leo Bloom (Michael Di Liberto showing a keen dancing flair, comic physical skills, and timing). Kostroff is bigger than life, though not physical size, when partnered with Di Liberto with his fetish for the remnants of a childhood, fuzzy security blanket.

The two hatch a scheme to get rich by producing a Broadway flop.  No, make that the worst play in Broadway history. They will sell 1000 percent of the show to elderly women backers; than take the money and run. At first Bloom is reluctant even as Bialystock woes him with a song, “We Can Do It” with its line “we can make our dreams come true.” It takes Bloom being confronted at his meaningless, humiliating job as an accountant (“I smell the stench of self-esteem”) to turn him to thoughts of being a Broadway producer.

From there, the audience gets to meet a bevy of characters soon after the boys discover an utterly in-bad-taste, sure to flop play. These characters are a collection of glitziness, gaudiness and grandiosity meant to raise eyebrows, each in their own way.

There is the bad-taste, former Nazi playwright Franz Liebkind (a delicious Stephen F. Schmidt who steals each of his scenes, including excellent singing and dancing). He has penned a love-letter to the Third Reich and Adolf Hitler. He lives in New York City’s Greenwich Village with his adored pigeons.

The audience meet the character Roger De Bris who is hired to direct the expected loser-bomb since his directing talents are limited to happy musicals. (Jason Graae who gives a delightfully physical and facial “read” to his character’s eccentricities. He wants to be a likeable character; he succeeds). We first see Graae attired in an outrageous silver ball gown looking like the NYC art-deco Chrysler Building  When asked about the play he is about to direct, Graae has this to say, “Read it? I devoured it! I never realized that the Third Reich meant Germany.”

His assistant is Carmen Ghia (from an over-the-top, joyful, fey-performance by Robert Mintz).  (A quick aside note, I have always smiled at this character’s recalling the VW-built Karmenn Ghia sporty 2+2 sports car that ended production in the early 1970s). In a scene in which they and an ensemble of Village People-like characters take-on  the number “Keep it Gay,”the scene becomes a teasing bouncy juicy visual that Graae and Mintz somehow are able to control staying in the moment.

We are also introduced to a “Swedish-accented”, blond-tressed, good-hearted Ulla (a mischievous, sweetly naughty Jessica Jaros in her Olney debut).  She appears in a form fitting white dress soon singing “When You Got It, Flaunt It” as she sensually moves about emphasizing the lyric,“show your assets, let them know you’re proud.” She becomes Max/Leo’s “secretary-slash-receptionist” and later Leo’s love interest. When Leo and Ulla fall in love at the top of Act II, it is with a Fred and Ginger inspired romantic couple’s dance.

There are several boffo large production numbers including an audience favorite just as Act I concluded. It is an energy-bar of a tap dancing number with the “older” women, all tapping in unison.It takes on the female dancing equivalent of the male, black-hatted bottle dancers in Fiddler on the Roof.

Further into Act II, comes The Producers jaw-dropping full-cast production number. It is a highway to musical theater Heaven:“Springtime for Hitler.” It is Brooks’ comical skewering of Adolf Hitler with lyrics like, “The thing you gotta know. Everything is Show biz, Watch my show, I’m the German Ethel Merman, Dontcha  Know.” As this outrageous number progresses Graae dances with pure child-like delight as shimmering costumed “show girls” step into view with hats that must be seen to be believed.
The Producers quickly winds down after “Spring Time for Hitler,” as the hoped-for dud is a hit. The backers’ money can’t be found, at first. So, the boys must pay for trying to fool so many. Suffice to say, this being a Broadway musical, all ends happily.

Stephen F. Schmidt (Franz Liebkind), Michael Di Liberto (Leo Bloom) and Michael Kostroff (Max Bialystock). Photo by Stan Barouh.
Stephen F. Schmidt (Franz Liebkind), Michael Di Liberto (Leo Bloom) and Michael Kostroff (Max Bialystock). Photo by Stan Barouh.

As for the creative teamwork; the set design by James Fouchard, lighting from Andrew F. Griffin, and sound design by Max Krembs, accomplished what Fouchard hoped for in a program note: “keeping up with the mad pace of going from one locale to the others!”

The Producers is a rare sighting on the professional DC area stages. The Olney Theatre Center production may be the first in a decade. Do take it in. It is a whirling dervish and a force to take away any care and woes. Consider it a playful lark and naught fun from the mind of Mel Brooks and people who want you to just have a good time.

Olney Theatre Center’s The Producers is a hysterical megahit!

Running Time 2 hours and 30 minutes, with one 15-minute intermission.

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The Producers plays through July 26, 2015 at Olney Theatre Center — 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Road, in Olney, MD. For tickets, call (301) 924-3400, or purchase them online.

Note: The Producers is recommended for those 13 and up.

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