When "Young Frankenstein" opened on Broadway in the fall of 2007, critics mostly agreed that it was a pale copy of "The Producers" with less memorable songs. Soon thereafter, online voters at Broadway.com named it their favorite new musical of the season.
Both groups were right.
The creative team for the two productions was identical: Mel Brooks wrote music and lyrics, Brooks and Thomas Meehan teamed for the book, and Susan Stroman directed and choreographed. But while the trio re-imagined and deepened "Producers," they took the opposite tack with "Frankenstein." Great moments from the film have been preserved faithfully but blown up to elephantine dimensions, until we all but drown in them - which the crowd at Belk Theater was willing to do Tuesday.
One example should suffice. In the film, the monster visits the hut of a lonely blind hermit. The hermit spills hot soup in his lap, sending his new pal howling off in pain. The scene is brief, unexpected, hilarious.
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Onstage, the hermit prays to God for a visitor in a long and undistinguished song, getting down on his knees in Al Jolson-style to belt the last chorus. The monster smashes through the wall of his hut, leaving a creature-shaped hole in the wall. The hermit tells him the soup is hot - so hot, really boiling, boy-you-sure-wouldn't-want-this-steaming-soup-in-your-lap-nosiree hot - and then follows the gag with bits of destructive comedy until the monster flees. The hermit then reprises the climax of his song.
The whole piece is built on the principle that if we laugh when horses whinny at the name of Frankenstein's horrible housekeeper, we will laugh seven times as hard on the seventh whinny. (I counted.) If this is true for you, this may be one of the funniest shows you can imagine. Otherwise, you may feel that the cake we once enjoyed has been removed, and we're being served icing on top of icing on top of icing.
The plot is just what you expect. Frederick Frankenstein (Christopher Ryan) inherits his grandfather's castle, along with self-serving servant Igor (Cory English), buxom assistant Inga (Synthia Link) and grandpa's housekeeper, Frau Blucher (Joanna Glushak).
Soon, Dr. F is creating a monster of his own (Preston Truman Boyd) but trying to hide him from Elizabeth, his prissy fiancée (Janine Divita), and the town's burgomaster (David Benoit), who lost an arm and a leg to granddad Frankenstein's creature.
The famous lines are all here: "Put the candle back!" "It's FRONK-en-STEEN!" (All Mel Brooks dialogue has to be written with exclamation marks.) The great scenes are here, too, climaxing in the "Puttin' on the Ritz" number for the tuxedoed monster. Of course, it now has to be danced by a dozen chorus members in faux monster boots, not just the creature.
The cast does a surprisingly good job of leaving behind the archetypal performances of the 1974 film. Ryan and English escape the long shadows of Gene Wilder and Marty Feldman by making the characters more buzzy and less bizarre; energy counts for a lot here, and they brim over with it. The baby-faced Boyd has an appealing presence, and the veteran Glushak conquers the audience with her naughty song "He Vas My Boyfriend."
That's one of just three numbers out of 18 that don't have generically manic buoyancy. With one exception, Brooks' songs are cotton candy, serviceable as they go down but impossible to hold in memory.
The exception is "Deep Love," a beautiful if predictably smutty ballad given to Elizabeth after a tryst with the monster. It could have been sung as a tender moment in which she rediscovers genuine feelings forgotten long ago, or as rowdy belting that sounds like Ethel Merman reaching orgasm. I'll let you guess which you get.