By Philip Pearce
YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN is a big, funny musical based on a big funny movie of the 1970s based on a camp horror film classic of the 1930s based on a philosophical gothic novel of the early 1800s.
Western Stage’s new production proves they have the technical skill and equipment to handle the ins and outs of the show’s wild and wide-ranging, pseudo-scientific nonsense. There is a fine blaring orchestra, ably led by Don Dally, for the tunes. There’s an all-singin’, all-dancin’ cast who more than do justice to this crazy tale of do-it-yourself immortality.
Asleep at the theatrical switch, I have only just realized that the classy music and lyrics, not just the book of this and of The Producers are also the work of that king of slapstick comedy Mel Brooks.
If you like a comforting and uplifting evening at the theater, Mel’s not your man. He has grasped the truth that comedy is at heart subversive. His best pieces are blatant frontal attacks on established standards of good taste and feel-good theatre. The Producers centers in the rancid proposition that a musical based on Hitler and the Third Reich could become a smash hit with Broadway audiences. Young Frankenstein plays fast and loose with Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s serious philosophical musings about the possibility that nineteenth century science might defy God by creating human life. A lady I know and like who recently complained that a Marx Brothers revival was a nasty attack on Italians and deaf mutes would hate Young Frankenstein. I enjoyed it a lot.
The script starts with a young academic named Frederick Frankenstein (who insists on its being pronounced “Fronken-steen“) happily tenured at an American college teaching the physiology and disorders of the human brain. Learning of the death of his father Dr. Victor Frankenstein, he reluctantly agrees to travel to a gloomy gothic castle in Transylvania to settle his late parent’s estate.
What follows is a sendup of the events of the 1931 James Whale movie, as Frederick is plunged into a repetition of his father’s work (“Join the Family Business”) of electrifying life into corpses dug up from Transylvanian graveyards. Jared W Hussey, joyously graduating from good-guy lead tenor roles into knock-about comedy, is a fine, befuddled Frederick. He’s ably assisted by Noel Yuri-Bermudez who does a clever imitation of Marty Feldman’s screen performance as the physically twisted, cross-eyed, but emotionally helpful dwarf Igor. Then there’s Christiana Meeks, looking gorgeous and singing gorgeously as a toothsome blonde medical aide named Inga. A fourth member of the lab team is Donna Federico in the role of a gloomy German housekeeper named Frau Blücher. She provides the comic high point of the evening with a bizarre imitation of Marlene Dietrich singing out a confession that “He (i.e. the late Doctor Victor) Vas My Boyfriend.”
The work of the Frankenstein team, as we all know, soon produces a resurrected Monster (“Life, Life!”) who looks like a murderous ghoul but, like his predecessors of former versions, is really a wistful victim of mob ignorance. The musical makes the point delightfully as the ensemble do a bang-up job playing a chronically stupid posse searching for the escaped Monster, who keeps appearing, undetected, affable and in full view of their frantic efforts to find him. The famed Karloff role is played here with a lot of charm and assurance by Clark M Brown. He and Hussey provide another musical show stopper in white tie and tails singing Irving Berlin’s “Puttin’ on the Ritz,” which would be even funnier left as a straight duet without adding Inga and the ensemble to the mixture.
One sequence I’ve never found easy to watch is Brooks’ reworking of a scene where the Monster, fleeing the angry mob, stumbles into the hut of a blind hermit. As the two social outcasts eat, drink and smoke cigars together, they cement a friendship that eases their shared loneliness. It’s sentimental but it works in the old Karloff/Whale movie. The same things happen in the Brooks version. But this time around the blind man unwittingly scalds his guest with hot soup, stains his friend’s pants with misdirected red wine and scares him off with a flaming cigar. Brown and Tom Kiatta as the Hermit play the scene for sincerity and sympathy, but it left a nasty taste in the mouth of at least one member of the audience.
The final and inspired piece of improbability follows on the arrival in Transylvania (“Surprise!”) of Frederick’s fiancee Elizabeth, attractively played and beautifully sung by Malinda DeRouen. She shows up wearing the glad rags of a Manhattan heiress, gets carried off by the Monster and ends the evening in the same costume Elsa Lanchester wore in another popular Karloff/Whale horror film called Bride of Frankenstein. Enough said.
The show plays weekends through December 9th.
Photo by Richard Green