From Bialystock to Beelzebub

After winning raves as an amoral producer, Brad Oscar is playing someone even more diabolical.



The laugh seems to come out of nowhere.

It's a low, rumbling, reach-across-the-table, grab-you-by-the-collar, scare-you-silly laugh.

And it's all the more surprising because it's coming from a guy who seems like the most affable soul in the world - a balding, middle-aged, average-looking guy, dressed in jeans and a blue plaid flannel shirt.

But looks can be deceiving.

For example, if the devil paid a surreptitious visit to earth, who's to say he wouldn't look just like this - just like Brad Oscar?

That's exactly what the devil looks like in the Faustian musical Damn Yankees, which opens Thursday at Washington's Arena Stage. The devil goes by the innocuous name of Mr. Applegate in this 1955 musical comedy about a baseball fan who sells his soul for a chance to play for his favorite team, the Washington Senators.

"I love the idea that the devil could be your next door neighbor, and that sometimes evil comes in a very ordinary package," says Molly Smith, Arena Stage artistic director and the director of Damn Yankees. "Brad Oscar, for me, is very much an Everyman, and I think that's part of the reason he connects so fully with an audience."

Eating a turkey sandwich during a rehearsal break, Oscar unleashes his first Mephistophelean laugh as he launches into a comparison of Applegate and the last character the actor portrayed - Max Bialystock, the larcenous producer in the Broadway musical The Producers.

"Both are larger-than-life characters," Oscar says. "Max does several unscrupulous things in the course of The Producers. So I think there are certain similarities. He has a passion that knows no bounds."

On Sept. 1, Oscar celebrated his 1,000th performance as Max. Counting the road and London, as well as Broadway, he's played the shady impresario more times than any other actor, including Nathan Lane, who created the role. Writing for, Kenneth Jones describes this as "a massive achievement, putting him in the ranks of, among others, stage stars Carol Channing and Yul Brynner, who surpassed the 1,000-show milestone in their respective hits, Hello, Dolly! and The King and I."

Luck smiled on him

The way the 41-year-old, Washington-born actor - a relative unknown - reached these ranks is so unlikely, it's tempting to think that he, too, had some help from Applegate. When he won the role of Max, the New York Times wrote about "the fairy tale quality of Brad Oscar's life." USA Today called it "the Cinderella story of the season."

Oscar's Producers saga began five years ago when he was playing Santa Claus in The Radio City Music Christmas Spectacular in Branson, Mo. He learned that the stage musical being made of Mel Brooks' 1968 movie was looking for swings - actors who understudy several roles, but don't have a regular role in the show. He flew to New York to audition on his day off.

The trip paid off. He was hired to understudy half a dozen roles. Among them were Bialystock and Franz Liebkind, the Nazi playwright whose show, Springtime for Hitler, is the comic centerpiece of the musical.

During the musical's pre-Broadway run in Chicago, the actor originally cast as Franz injured his knee. Oscar's parents - Paul, a retired civil engineer, and Fran, a conference consultant - flew out from their home in Rockville to see their son in the role. After all, Fran Oscar says, who knew when they'd get another chance?

As it turned out, the original actor was unable to continue, and Oscar replaced him permanently, earning a nomination for a Tony Award.

But the Cinderella story doesn't end there. When Nathan Lane left the Broadway show, he was replaced by British actor Henry Goodman. After four weeks, the producers abruptly fired Goodman, and Oscar was catapulted into the lead.

By then, his parents had had plenty of opportunities to see him play Max; he had stepped into the role more than 70 times as Lane's understudy. His mother still remembers the first time, however. "He knew everybody coming to theater would hate him," Fran Oscar recalls. "I was so nervous for him, and you could see, slowly but surely, he got that audience. You could just feel that happening."

"It's so wild. It's all so random. This business is so random, and that's why I feel so blessed and so fortunate because this whole thing could just as easily not have happened," Brad Oscar says.

Then, in a mock hurt tone, punctuated by another Mephistophelean laugh, he adds, "Nobody wants me to be their understudy anymore. I don't understand it!"

Oscar also has a role in the movie, which opens on Christmas. But he's not playing Max (that's Lane) or Franz (that's Will Ferrell). Instead, he's a taxi driver whose sole line is a Brooklyn-inflected: "Where to?"

"From Franz and Max to `where to?'" he says. "That's show biz, kid. I don't think I had any delusions."

Childhood aspirations

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