Borscht League Creature Feature


Show #72: Young Frankenstein, SHN, June 30.

Anne Horak, Roger Bart, Cory English, Joanna Glushak and Shuler Hensley. Photo by Paul Kolnik

By Sam Hurwitt

It’s no news to anyone at this point that Mel Brooks had a huge hit with The Producers, his 2001 Broadway musical based on his own 1968 movie The Producers—amusingly enough, because the show is about people who try to produce a flop and end up with a smash instead.

It looked like the much more common opposite scenario would be the fate of Young Frankenstein, Brooks’s follow-up with Producers cowriter Thomas Meehan. Like The Producers, this 2007 musical adapted a classic selection from Brooks’s cinematic back catalog, this time his 1974 horror parody Young Frankenstein. But The Producers it wasn’t. Lousy reviews and eye-popping ticket prices (up to $450) saw Young Frankenstein close after a year—not exactly a flop, but disappointing after The Producers’ six-year run and twelve Tony Awards. (This one won none, although it was nominated for design and a couple of acting awards.)

But now the $16 million Broadway musical has taken its show on the road in a pared-down touring version with simplified sets and visual effects (involving a whole lot of strobe lights—epileptics beware) playing at the Golden Gate Theatre courtesy of SHN’s Best of Broadway season. Robin Wagner’s sets are still terrifically varied and detailed, especially the lab where the proverbial magic happens.

It’s 1934—which is to say, right between 1931’s Frankenstein,1935’s Bride of Frankenstein and 1939’s Son of Frankenstein, the movies Brooks was parodying in the first place. Doctor Victor Frankenstein of monster-creating fame has died, and his American grandson Dr. Frederick Frankenstein (that’s “Frahnkenshteen”) has to go to Transylvania to make sure the family assets aren’t seized. From then on, of course, everyone expects him to join the family business (to borrow the name of a song in the show) and make a monster of his own.

The musical makes the original movie look subtle, which it ain’t. It includes most of the gags from the film, but they all have to be bigger, broader, bawdier, and cornier than before. The “walk this way” gag, for instance, is so overstated that it loses any trace of funniness it had before.

With the notable exception of Beth Curry’s decent Madeline Kahn impersonation as Frederick’s fiancée Elizabeth, the cast doesn’t imitate the stars of the movie. If anything, Cory English plays Igor less like Marty Feldman than like Nathan Lane—which is to say boisterous and hammy to the point of tediousness—because every musical comedy nowadays needs a Nathan Lane role.

The touring production stars the show’s original Frederick, Roger Bart, whom you may recall as the creepy pharmacist on Desperate Housewives. A talented comic actor, Bart tackles the role with relish, pausing to savor the corniest jokes. Anne Horak is delightful as the bodacious, yodeling lab assistant Inga, and Joanna Glushak suitably ominous as the creepy Frau Blucher. (Cue horses neighing at the sound of her name.) Brad Oscar is priceless in the slapstick role of the blind hermit and makes a perfectly passable Inspector Kemp, the German-accented policeman with several artificial limbs who doesn’t have much to do in the show.

The songs by Brooks are rooted in the vaudeville era—appropriately enough, because so are his jokes. Frederick and Igor sing a Jimmy Durante-style number, the hermit wails an over-the-top lament in the manner of Al Jolson, and there’s even a Weillesque ditty for Frau Blucher. (There go those horses again.) The songs also borrow liberally from old-time Broadway—sometimes swiping them outright, as with “The Brain,” sung to the tune of “There Is Nothing Like a Dame” from South Pacific.  That means they also blend in well with the one number the show absolutely had to include, Irving Berlin’s “Puttin’ on the Ritz.”

That’s one moment where the musical’s constant attempted one-upmanship of the movie really pays off. Frederick and the monster tap-dancing in tuxes and tails is one of the most memorable moments of the movie, but here that’s just the beginning of a dazzling song-and-dance number with some fairly impressive tapping and scat-singing from original monster Shuler Hensley, a large chorus of dancers in big monster shoes, and an amusing duet between the creature and his shadow. While the big number that closes act one, the new dance craze “Transylvania Mania,” simply tries too hard, “Puttin’ on the Ritz” is a knockout.

That’s one thing about the show being directed and choreographed by Susan Stroman: the dance numbers are fantastic, whether it’s a touchless couple dance to Elizabeth’s intro number “Please Don’t Touch Me” or whirling mad scientists and a giant monster puppet in the dream sequence “Join the Family Business.” (“My ancestors, they were so crazy!” Frederick says upon waking. “But boy, could they dance!”)

The ending is a bit of a mess, tossing Count Dracula into the mix for no discernable reason. But though the show tries way, way too hard to be funny, it succeeds enough of the time to make an enjoyable evening. Sure, it’s no Producers, and not as funny as the original Young Frankenstein either, but it could be worse. You might want to Karloff the victory parade, but it didn’t Boris to tears. If you like ’em big and dumb—heck, if you liked that last sentence—have we got a monster musical for you.

Young Frankenstein plays through July 25 at the Golden Gate Theatre, 1 Taylor St., San Francisco.

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