Stage and Cinema film and theatre reviews




Frankenstein - the musicalTheater Review

by John Topping

Published November 2, 2007



now playing Off Broadway at the 37 Arts Theater


We must give credit where it’s due.  The name and the word and the title “Frankenstein” is instantly recognizable, and, for most people, immediately conjures up an image of Boris Karloff as Frankenstein’s Monster.  (Most of us, even if we know better, tend to think of Frankenstein as the name of the Monster, rather than the scientist who brought the corpse back to life.)  Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s novel “Frankenstein” has, both directly and indirectly, spawned countless films and theatrical productions, the most obvious one in most New York theatergoers’ minds being Mel Brooks’ new musical adaptation of his own classic film comedy “Young Frankenstein,” which opens in just a few days.  Yet no one has successfully attempted to adapt the story that Mary Shelley wrote, which is vastly different from anything you’ve ever seen on stage or screen.  Practically the only connection is that a scientist named Frankenstein returns a dead person from life in ghastly form.


I happened to read the novel “Frankenstein” last year, and was flabbergasted at, not just how different it is, but how rich and absorbing and spellbinding a novel it is.  The hugest difference from almost all visual versions is that the Monster talks.  And not just a few simplistic words, but extremely proper 19th Century English – he even narrates a large chunk of the story.  Considering that the Monster describes how he had to learn to speak anew, yet masters the language in a short time is the biggest suspension of belief one needs to muster, but it’s worth going with it (not to mention that it can be reasoned that his formerly dead brain still held memories of words that kicked in during his immersion in relearning the language).


Some additional differences are:


- The people that the Monster kills intentionally are members of Frankenstein’s family, committed in pre-meditated bouts of revenge at having created in him a hideous, friendless being, only to be immediately abandoned and helplessly left to fend for himself in a cruel world.


- Frankenstein is actually a university student when he creates the Monster, and part of his abandonment of his creation is due to the transition from exhausting obsessiveness in studying and perfecting the science of reanimation, followed by a deep, unyielding and emotionally crippling depression once he has succeeded and seen the ghastly fruits of his labor.


- No townspeople storm across fields carrying torches to search for and destroy the beast.  Instead, Frankenstein himself, always lamenting his own eternally tortured soul, chases him into the icy northernmost reaches of Europe, trying to correct his own wrong.


Several years after its initial publication, Mary Shelley added a lengthy prologue describing Frankenstein as an unexpected passenger on a ship during the course of his pursuit of the Monster, written as the Ship Captain’s letters to his sister describing this strange and haunted man he befriended.  (Should you be inspired to read the book, this prologue takes some trudging through; it doesn’t become thoroughly engaging until the actual tale begins.)


So, as I said, credit where it’s due.  The makers of this “Frankenstein” went in with the intention of telling the story that Shelley wrote, and not the by-products of the inadvertent franchise it has produced.  And it’s book writer/lyricist Jeffrey Jackson’s first play, so cut him some slack (his program biography asserting himself as “an accomplished screenwriter, filmmaker, musician, actor and multimedia artist” is a little embarrassing (in theater programs, everyone writes their own bios)).  And the performers have wonderful voices.  Also, film and video designer Michael Clark’s screen projections, which sometimes become part of the set (most notably as an extension of a constructed staircase) and other times abstractly represent the mood of the scene, surprised me at how often the tone-setting screen projections actually captured the tone of the scenes in Shelley’s novel.  At times, they eerily matched the visual landscape that I remembered imagining on my own.


Credit registered.


I got my initial inkling of a sinking feeling when I saw that the first credit in Steve Blanchard’s (the Creature) bio was “Beauty and the Beast.”  Oh, no.  It’s not that kind of musical, is it?  But then the subtext of the first number seemed to be, “We’re going to Broadway!”


Now maybe I’m the wrong person to review a musical that tries to emulate extravaganzas a la Cameron Macintosh or Andrew Lloyd Webber or most of the other new musicals that have been blighting the theatrical landscape since the 80s, as the music by Mark Baron does here.  If you like shows like “Phantom of the Opera” or “Starlight Express” or “Les Miserables” or “Miss Saigon” or others of that ilk, this might just be your proverbial cup of tea.  In fact, one enthusiastic audience member at intermission immediately got on his phone and called someone to bask in the excitement of being on the cutting edge of theatergoing, saying to the receiving end, “What a show.  What! A! Show!”  However, I’m more inclined to think that the consensus will be similar to last season’s “The Times They Are A’Changin’.”  Even at the performance I attended then, once the train wreck had finally ended, the audience member in front of me said, “Well, that’s a hit.,” as if to imply, “What more is there to say?  Obviously it’s going to run forever, and quite deservedly, I might add.”  Once the pre-sold tickets ran their course of performances, it quickly folded (and quite deservedly, I might add).


But, alas, I fear it’s more than my personal distaste for overblown, homogenized, post-1980 standard musical fare that’s the problem here.  I had the sense – correctly, as it turned out, according to my companion – that because I had so recently read the book, I was one of the few people in the audience who could really follow what was going on.  And even with that advantage, the story was muddled.


First of all, the tale is too epic to try to cover it all in two condensed hours, including the prologue, which I’m sure had most people scratching their heads as the play ended with the forgotten character of the ship captain narrating the last line of a letter to his sister.  But really, worse than trying to include an aspect of every element of the story that only ends in confusion, the big problem is that it is not dramatic.  Instead of seeing the drama played out, we are told, or, rather, sung, the exposition.


Unfortunately, once a show gets the basic elements wrong, it becomes all too easy, not to mention downright inviting, to pick on every other aspect of the show.  I don’t take notes when I watch a play, so I can’t share some of the laughable rhyme schemes (although my companion recalled, “Children of Hell / You’re our children as well”).  And Steve Blanchard as the Creature sports a gym-buffed torso with perfect abs and pecs that gives the (probably correct) appearance of pandering to attract a gay audience.


One wonders about the timing of the serious-musical “Frankenstein” opening exactly one week before the comedy-musical “Young Frankenstein.”  (Interestingly, the male lead, Hunter Foster as Frankenstein, is the brother of Sutton Foster, the female lead in the Mel Brooks show.)  They have been working on “Frankenstein” for years, but did they rush into production to try to capitalize on the behemoth show’s presence?  It might turn out to be ironic:  although it remains to be seen (or heard about), the buzz of “Young Frankenstein” is that it’s going to be a disaster.  But now, with “Frankenstein” (probably) bombing first, it may give the funny guys an unexpected boost in credibility.


johntopping @

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