Young Frankenstein by Mel Brooks and Thomas Meehan – Los Angeles Theater Review
THE NUTS AND BOLTS MUSICAL
by Tony Frankel
published August 1, 2010
now playing in Los Angeles at the Pantages Theater
through August 15
Here is the best way to enjoy yourself with Young Frankenstein at the
Pantages Theatre: 1) Don’t see the movie first because there are many moments that work better in the original film than in the musical –
if you have already seen the movie, then do your best to forget it, as comparisons will only impede your viewing pleasure; 2) Don’t look
forward to great songwriting; 3) Somehow get your hands on the lyrics of the chorus’ songs so you can understand what they’re singing; 4)
Possibly get stoned; 5) Accept that you have no control over the V-O-L-U-M-E; and 6) Expect a battering ram of Borscht Belt and Burlesque –
any humor that eschews subtlety.
Creator Mel Brooks cut his teeth in the Catskills writing rapid-fire,
deprecating Borsht Belt comedy for a mostly Jewish audience. This style of humor, based on Burlesque, is raucous, broad, and bawdy with a
penchant for double entendres. In fact, the root of the French word burlesque comes from the
Spanish burla, meaning “joke.” It was a literary term in 17th century
Italy and France, referring to a grotesque imitation of the dignified or pathetic.
This is ages-old comedy for a reason, folks – the public likes grotesque; we’re animals; and if Young Frankenstein were an animal, surely it would be a hyena, for this show grabs your neck, chomps down
and …never…lets…go. But it’s funny!
GROTESQUE: won’t you join me
for a romp through the Thesaurus as the plot is summarized?
The story of a well-respected brain surgeon inheriting his grandfather’s castle and laboratory (and that Grandfather
happens to be Victor Frankenstein) is FANTASTIC. Once in Transylvania, surgeon Frederick
Frankenstein (Roger Bart) is torn: should he continue his grandfather’s fascinating work, which is bringing dead tissue to life, or just
ignore this gruesome legacy? He meets MISSHAPEN Igor (Cory English) who introduces him to
laboratory assistant Inga (Anne Horak), who not only wants to roll in the hay in the back of a cart, but performs a big number doing it –
that’s BIZARRE. Horses whinny every time they hear the name Frau Blucher (Joanna
Glushak), the WACKY housekeeper who shacked up with Frederick’s grandfather. When the
decision is made to experiment on a dead corpse (is there any other kind?), Igor steps on the chosen brain (GROSS) and the wrong brain is put into the corpse, which is successfully reanimated, but he’s
MONSTROUS! Soon after the UGLY monster
escapes, Frederick’s fiancée, Elizabeth (Beth Curry) shows up. Transylvania inspector Kemp (Brad Oscar), who lost an arm and a leg when he
was attacked by Victor Frankenstein’s Monster, hunts the new DEFORMED creature
Thomas Meehan (book co-writer) helped Mr. Brooks with the structure, but most of
the dialogue is plucked gratuitously from the movie. The music and lyrics by Mr. Brooks are schmaltzy and silly, ranging from town hall
beer-clinking waltzes to simple, sappy, send-ups of ballads. His show is all about the brain, but not the heart, as is evidenced in the
dungeon scene: when Victor is confronted by the menacing creature, he convinces him that people are afraid of him because they’re jealous.
What could have been the true-blue, eye-moistening ballad – the one moment in the show that gives
us a break from all of that relentless, comical pounding, that BREATHES for Christ’s sake –
became the jaunty number, “Man About Town,” and, like it or not, we are back on the spinning vaudeville roller-coaster ride. But don’t get
me wrong, I like roller coasters. The next number in the show is Irving Berlin’s “Puttin’ on the Ritz,” the public domain song (also used in
an iconic scene from the movie…whoops, I mentioned it again) where Frederick shows off his kinder, gentler monster to the public (“Puttin’
on the Ritz,” now that’s great songwriting). An excellent new Glen Kelly arrangement (with Doug
Besterman’s swinging-brass orchestrations) has nearly the entire cast tapping their cares away, including the leads, who more than hold
their own with the leggy chorus.
The leads are some of the most hard-working and multi-talented actors in the
country. Roger Bart, originator of Frederick on Broadway, is delightful and quite impressive with his vocal variety. Miss Horak as Inga is
stunning and powerful; she yodels up a storm and offers the best example of dancing that is lithe and powerful – just try to take your eyes
off her gams. Brad Oscar not only gives us a blustery Kemp, but plays the soup-spilling Hermit in a scene with Shuler Hensley (also from the
Broadway production) that stops the show – their timing is unsurpassed. The physically
dexterous Cory English brings life to a role with as much nuance as a Mack truck.
Director Susan Stroman is first and foremost a choreographer – most inventive is the “Please Don’t Touch Me” dance,
where the coupled chorus flies about the stage without touching each other. Miss Stroman runs a tight ship, and is to be commended, even
though some of the sight gags fall flat. She does superlatively well with the material she’s given. The days of director as auteur are
sorely missed. But to quote Frederick, “Oh fuck it. Never mind.”
Someone should be taken to task for the terrible sound – one suspects the “technical supervision” by Hudson
Theatrical Associates, not designer Jonathon Deans. This show may be a well-oiled machine, but does it have to be such a loud machine? The
balance between orchestra and singers is shameful. Although the lyrics may be cheap, we deserve to be able to understand them. Miss Glushak
as Frau Blucher is already thrusting her razor-sharp precision upon us, but her turbo-charged microphone slams her voice down my spine to
the point that it’s grating…but funny.
Expect no more than grotesque Burlesque from Young Frankenstein and you
should be satisfied – it never pretends to be more than it is. In the future, if Mr. Brooks chooses to turn, say, Blazing Saddles, into a Broadway musical, he would do well to take a tip from A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum: Sondheim’s songs, though not his best, service the zany,
high-paced antics by slowing down the action. As it stands, Young Frankenstein can be irritating
to some because it constantly pushes to be funny with all cylinders (or lab equipment) running, producing uneven results: It’s hysterical,
then kind of funny, then not so funny, then outrageously funny, then sort of funny. (I stopped dating because of performances like that.)
This leaves the cast, loaded with some brilliant comic timing, to throw rotten (but funny) tomatoes at the audience; and when the show
doesn’t work, largely due to mediocre material, it’s like having a grapefruit squeezed into your face…but a funny grapefruit.
tonyfrankel @ stageandcinema.com
photos by Paul Kolnik
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