BWW Reviews: YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN Should Delight Beck Audiences, But...
(Member, American Theatre Critics Association, Cleveland Critics Circle)
On a November Saturday afternoon in 2007, I anxiously entered the Hilton Theatre in New York. I love exaggerated, well-conceived and performed farce. I was going to see "Young Frankenstein" by the king of farce and parody, Mel Brooks. Yes, "Young Frankenstein," officially known as "The New Mel Brooks Young Frankenstein," was the Broadway follow-up to "The Producers," by the comedy madman and his writing sidekick, Thomas Meehan.
Brooks conceived the comedy routine, "The 2000 Year Old Man." "Blazing Saddles" is one of my all time favorite movies. Brooks is also responsible for such other zany offerings as "The Twelve Chairs," "Silent Movie," and "History of the World, Part I."
"Young Frankenstein," was going to be great! Right? Wrong
The musical, based on the 1974 film of the same name, followed Brooks' pattern for "The Producers." He grabbed the film's plot and best lines and modified them for the stage. But this time he didn't create the same power "shticks" and realistic ridiculousness, so the results were less than expected.
The reviews called the piece, "an overblown burlesque review," "giggly smuttiness with throw-away music." Other comments stated, "there's more ho-hum than hummable music," and, "you cannot escape the impression that everyone is working desperately hard to animate essentially weak material and the show fatally lacks that touch of the sublime that made 'The Producers' so special." Sadly, I agreed with them.
The public also agreed. The Broadway production, in spite of the Brooks/Meehan combo, a cast which included Roger Bart, Megan Mullaly, Sutton Foster and Andrea Martin, a $16 million dollar budget, and direction and choreography by Susan Stroman, but ran only 484 performances. (Compare that to the 2,502 performances for "The Producers," or the $9 million spent on "The Book of Morman which has already run 1400 performances.)
"Young Frankenstein" is a parody of horror films, especially the blockbuster flicks based on Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein" and "Son of Frankenstein." It takes place in Transylvania Heights in 1934. At the start, the villagers are celebrating the death of Dr. Victor von Frankenstein, the mad scientist who has supposedly been experimenting in his castle with bringing dead bodies back to life.
Hurrah, the mad scientist and his whole family are dead and the village no longer has to live in fear. Well, not so fast! Vic has a grandson, Frederick, the Dean of Anatomy at New York's best university "Johns, Miriam and Anthony Hopkins School of Medicine." But, not to worry. Ziggy, the village idiot, assures the townspeople that there is no way that Frederick is going to come to Transylvania.
Of course, Ziggy, as is the case with village idiots, is wrong and Frederick, renamed "Fronkensteen" is forced to travel abroad to settle the claim on his inherited castle. And so the potential fun begins.
Frederick needs to get away from his frigid fiancée, who refuses to allow him to touch her. (Obviously no hanky-panky is going to take place.) There's a meeting with Igor (the hunchbacked laboratory aid, whose hump keeps moving around his back), a romp in the hay wagon with Inga, (his well-endowed assistant), horses who neigh each time the name of the castle's housekeeper, Frau Blucher, is spoken, the stealing of a dead body, the mishandling of a brain needed for the creation of the monster, a sex dalliance in mid-air, many reference to "boobs," the creation of a large green monster in platform shoes, and lots of oft-hilarious (or, almost hilarious, or, kind of funny) situations).
Martin Céspedes's creative choreography, which incorporates Borscht-belt vaudeville routines, tap dancing, a kick tap line, eastern European movements including the Chardosh, and the invention of the "Don't Touch Me" style of movement, incorporates the right style of ridiculousness.
The depth of absurdity is not totally built into the script, so much of it has to be invented. Director Scott Spence develops some of the ridiculousness, but he doesn't dig deep enough to create the total needed abandonment. In addition, though the cast puts out full effort, they simply don't have the vaudeville backgrounds to create some of Brooks's outrageousness.
Since, in general, the Beck audience members aren't filled with the ethnic background needed to appreciate Brooks "mishegas," if the opening night audience is any indication, they won't know what they are missing. ("Mishegas" is ridiculousness beyond the ridiculous. It's Sid Caesar, Harvey Korman, Imogene Coca, Carol Burnett, Carl Reiner-ridiculousness. It's the Native Americans in "Blazing Saddles" speaking Yiddish rather than communicating in an Indian dialect. If you don't know Yiddish, you don't now how funny the scene is.
Amiee Collier , as Frau Blucher, comes the closest to understanding the level of Brooks' farce. Jamie Koeth has a nice touch with the reality of Frederick. Leslie Andrews has some good moments as Inga. Christopher Aldrich is physically right for The Monster and he does a nice job with "Putting on the Ritz," but is neither scary enough at his "birth," nor exaggerated enough, as he matures. Alex Smith, as Igor, displays a fine touch with comedy, but needed to let loose more and enjoy himself.
Trad A Burns lighting design is well-conceived and properly spooky. The lack of a fly gallery and wing space restricts scenic designers. All things considered, Cameron Caley Michalak does an adequate job of making the scene changes non-obtrusive. His answer to the need for a second level was not impressive and the concept of dropping things from the ceiling should have been deleted. The setting is aided by some nice video designs by Ian Hinz.
CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: "Young Frankenstein" isn't a well-written script and it has a weak musical score. Is the production bad? Not really. Martin Céspedes's choreography added a creativity factor, and the second act on opening night was funnier than the first, hopefully indicating an increased comfort level by the cast and the ability to really let loose. In spite of the negatives, audiences should have a fun time at Beck.
"Young Frankenstein" is scheduled to run through August 17, 2014 at Beck Center for the Arts. For tickets and information call 216-521-2540 or go online to http://www.beckcenter.org