After the fabulous critical and commercial success of The Producers, Mel Brooks’ multiple Tony-winning smash hit, it was only a matter of time before Brooks went back to the well to mount another musical from his beloved catalog of films.
While not quite as polished nor memorable as Brooks’ aforementioned mega-hit, this theatrical production of his film Young Frankenstein presents an entertaining package of raucous slapstick comedy, big, brassy, musical numbers, and awe-inspiring set pieces. Currently running in the gorgeous Kennedy Center Opera House, the show follows Dr. Frederick Frankenstein, the American son of the famous mad scientist, as he slowly discovers and embraces his father’s dark legacy. Frankenstein (Roger Bart) and a talented cast sing, dance, and banter their way through a series of madcap misadventures, doing their best to recreate the daffy characters and well-loved comedy bits of the original film.
The show really fires on all cylinders during its big musical numbers. Young Frankenstein sports a few showstoppers that deliver more than a few “wow” moments. “Join the Family Business” boasts impressive ghostly special effects, a slew of dancing wild-haired scientists, and some of the most fantastic marionette work since The Lion King. Building on the energy of this impressive number, the second act extravaganza “Puttin’ on the Ritz” brings down the house with intricate choreography, dazzling costumes, strobe lights, and whimsical shadow play reminiscent of Peter Pan.
The impressive cast, led by Tony winners Bart and Shuler Hensley (in the role of the pyrophobic Monster), really nail the difficult, manic material, proving there isn’t one weak link among them. However, out of the slew of Broadway-caliber performances, a few actors and actresses truly stand apart due to their unflagging energy and dedication to selling their characters. In the role of Igor, Cory English proves a superb physical comedian. He is equally at home lurching eerily about in the mist and dancing gaily with a top hat and cane. He imbues the bumbling sidekick role with grace and mischievous glee, making his an utterly entrancing performance. In her hilarious turn as the imperious Frau Blucher, Joanna Glushak frequently steals the scene with a riotous mix of melodrama, raunchy humor, and consciously overdone accent, not to mention her impressive vocal chops.
Special praise goes to Brad Oscar for his portrayal of the blind Hermit. In his short time onstage, he comes totally out of left field to blow the audience away with his comic timing and vocal power. Prior to a perfectly paced slapstick routine with the Monster, he belts out “Please Send Me Someone”, an endearing ballad that builds to a heartfelt climax as he prays to the Heavens for a friend, with plenty of old-Broadway style to spare.
Despite the considerable enjoyment the show does deliver, there were a few troubling elements. Without the benefit of camera close-ups, much signature comedy bits and scares from the film had to be exaggerated in order to reach every audience member seated in the large theater. Stripped of the subtlety that is paramount to the comedy in the film, the cast of the stage version must resort to using props, wild gesticulating, and outrageous voices, thus turning intimate, meticulously-crafted bits into awkward moments where the actors seemed to silently beg the audience for laughs.
There were also several noticeable sound problems the night I reviewed, and I understand they have persisted.
Aside from the film-to-stage translation issues and sound problems, this really is a very enjoyable show. The rousing score will have you tapping your feet for two and a half hours, and Brooks’ madcap, raunchy humor is, as always, a total guilty pleasure.
A word of warning, however: If you bring the kids, be ready for more than a few awkward moments which you’ll have to explain after, such as what Inga means by “He vould have an enormous schwanzstucker.”
By Mel Brooks and Thomas Meehan
Music and Lyrics by Mel Brooks
Directed by Susan Stroman
Reviewed by Ben Demers