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Who knew Maury Levy could sing and dance? That would be Michael Kostroff, best known for playing the ruthlessly amoral drug lawyer in The Wire. It turns out he does a pretty good Max, the goofily amoral theater producer in Olney Theatre’s revival of The Producers. That shouldn’t actually be a surprise, as he’s been doing the latter role—popularized by Nathan Lane in the upbeat 2001 Broadway show and 2005 Hollywood remake—as far back as his first appearance on HBO’s decidedly not-upbeat crime saga. It’s a role seemingly made for Kostroff, who took it on the road for the musical’s 2002 national tour and wrote a book about the experience; he has as much of a gift for physical humor and silly songs as he does for sleaze and courtroom invective.
Does it matter, then, that The Producers isn’t that funny? Probably not: Olney’s opening-night audience, largely a 60-and-up crowd, was rolling in the aisles at the flimsiest of gags, most of which rely on stereotypes outdated by half a century—the swishy gay, the oversexed Swede, the not-so-secretly-Nazi German. I guess these guys were reliable comedic touchstones when Mel Brooks wrote his original 1968 film, but they haven’t been updated for the subsequent productions (they took out a hippie, but that’s about it). In his artistic director’s notes, Jason Loewith wonders why there hasn’t been a staging of it in the D.C. area for over a decade. Maybe there’s a good reason.
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The Producers is a musical that revels in its outrageousness (the centerpiece is a musical-within-a-musical called Springtime for Hitler, after all) but the jokes aren’t so much offensive as they are confusing. Did gay people in the ’60s really wear sequins on everything and giant codpieces? Did straight people just imagine that they did? Who is The Producers supposed to be satirizing? The answers, of course, are no, yes, and both, sort of: The humor is intended to derive from from Max’s and his partner Leo’s (Michael Di Liberto) bugged-out reactions to everyone they enlist in an embezzlement scheme to stage a deliberate flop. But for those reactions to make sense, you still have to place yourself in a time where Ulla (Jessica Jaros), the Swedish nymphomaniac was, for some reason, a recognizable stock character in American pop culture.
So it’s not the fault of the cast, or even director Mark Waldrop, if some or all of it falls flat. Blame Brooks, whose last great contribution to the canon was 1987’s Spaceballs. Along with Kostroff, Di Liberto and Jaros throw all they have at “walk this way” and “black Irish” puns, and Jason Graae does an as-respectable-as-possible job as the “silly, hysterical queen” director Roger DeBris. There’s even some material that works on its own merits, not just in a throwback context: Choreographer Tara Jeanne Vallee arranges an exuberant chorus line number with grannies and walkers.
I imagine that those who get the most out of this production don’t so much love the gags for what they are as they love The Producers for what it represents: a love letter to a Broadway of a certain era. Musical theater is often self-referential and anachronistic by design—hell, even The Book of Mormon, a kind of spiritual successor to Mel Brooks, is similarly more sweet than offensive and hews religiously to the genre’s conventions (big ensemble opening number, “I wish” song, etc.)—so The Producers’ bad jokes don’t seem as dated as they could. They can even be comforting. Standards of offensiveness, decency, and comedy may change, but Broadway is forever, for better or worse.
2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Road, Olney. $30–$75. (301) 924-3400. olneytheatre.org.