With “The New Mel Brooks Musical: Young Frankenstein,” the legendary writer/director /actor/composer/comedy god is now a solid two-for-two in screen-to-stage adaptations. Criminally, this show got peanuts for reviews when it opened on Broadway in 2008, and was (unfavorably, unfairly) compared to Brooks’ behemoth, “The Producers,” which was the “Titanic” of its time.
But hear this now: “Young Frankenstein” is every bit the crowd-pleasing, laugh-till-you-cry juggernaut “Producers” was, even if it is a beast of a different shade of green. The big question isn’t which one’s better: It’s “why in the hell did Brooks wait so long to start turning his movies into musicals?”
Trying to figure out why “Young Frankenstein” is so good is like dissecting a brain to see why we laugh. It could be the nearly flawless 1974 Gene Wilder film that serves as this show’s source material. It could be Brooks himself, who wrote the show’s music and lyrics and co-wrote the book, infusing it with his unique brand of lewd wit and clever wordplay.
It could be the actors, who wisely make the roles their own rather than attempting impersonations of iconic characterizations. It could be the costumes, the make-up, or the choreography, but whatever it is, it all came together flawlessly in a living, breathing, organic theatre monster that slayed the audience and (quite literally) shot bolts of electricity across the stage on opening night.
Let’s start with the actors. Roger Bart (as Frederick Frankenstein) has a naturalness and charm you don’t often see on stage, even a professional one. His acting is relaxed, his lines seem conversational, and he subtly draws you in and removes your defenses before clobbering you with a hysterical shriek or lustful double-entendre. He doesn’t so much walk across the stage as he does softshoe across it — he’s always “on.”
His big opening number, "The Brain," a rat-a-tat-tat ode to grey matter, gets you hooked, and he doesn’t let you go until he allows The Monster (Shuler Hensley) to have a turn driving the show in Act II. Both Bart and Hensley originated their roles on Broadway, and they embody their characters with ease that’s fun to watch.
Joanna Glushak (Frau Blucher) and Cory English (Igor) join Bart in playing with the script the way a cat plays with a mouse, wrapping their tongues around seemingly harmless lines and essentially turning every piece of dialogue into a gag.
Example: Frau Blucher to Frankenstein, trying to help him sleep: “Some warm milk?” What could easily have been a throwaway line becomes a comical tongue twister under Glushak’s masterful delivery. Her stand-out number "He Vas My Boyfriend" allows her to prowl the stage like a cougar in heat, as she recalls her torrid affair with Frankenstein’s grandfather.
English, meanwhile, keeps threatening to steal the show with his dead-on deliveries, but each time he is skillfully, gently reminded of his place as a first-rate sidekick/henchman/comic relief by Bart. And Brad Oscar kills as the Blind Hermit, whose plaintive wail to God in "Please Send Me Someone" brings to mind Jean Valjean’s “Bring Him Home.” That is, until he dumps hot soup in The Monster’s lap and sets his thumb on fire.
The musical numbers almost uniformly please, springing naturally from plot points ("Please Don't Touch Me," "Life, Life") and lines from the original movie ("Roll in the Hay," “He Vas My Boyfriend”). The non-rousing "Transylvania Mania” that ends Act I, however, does feel like filler, and things don’t really take off again until the Blind Hermit’s song in Act II. The inventive choreography made the smaller numbers relevant and the bigger ones explode off the stage. Ever see 15 tap dancers going to town in 6-inch-high platform shoes? How about a 15-foot-tall monster assembled — and dancing! — a la Mufasa’s head in “The Lion King” musical? Didn’t think so.
Brooks’ book instills classic broad vaudevillian shtick with New Millennium “Family Guy” sensibilities. He also captures a great deal of the fun from the movie and yes, all the old gags still work. The signature number "Puttin' on The Ritz" is every bit the showstopper it was meant to be, and involves everything from a unique strobe light effect that captures the dancers leaping in the air to a cartoonish segment where The Monster is having a dance-off with his own shadow. This is a must-see show.
Alas, all was not perfect in Transylvania Heights on opening night, but it was mostly technical. Inga (Ann Horak) had a now-you-hear-it-now-you-don’t German accent that could use a little tightening up; backstage workers kept forgetting to close the side curtains, giving the audience unwanted glimpses into off-stage activity; the actors’ cordless microphones were loudly, annoyingly popping for most of the show; and there were a couple of missed set transition cues. None of them were dealbreakers, however.
“Young Frankenstein” is the best kind of remake — one that preserves everything that was great about the original and pumps it with enough fresh new blood to give it a life of its own. Hopefully we don’t have to wait another decade before Mr. Brooks realizes that “Blazing Saddles” is ripe for a stage musical. I can’t wait to hear “Campfire Beanfest (Please Pass the Gas).”