BWW Review: FRANKENSTEIN Comes Alive at The Belmont
'Tis the season of scaring, and everyone anticipates plays and musicals full of Halloweenish and Great Pumpkiny thrills, chills, and excitement. This year, The Belmont in York has contributed a special effort - no mere cult musical, but a staging of one of the classic monsters of our culture, FRANKENSTEIN. The show isn't a rehash of Boris Karloff's Universal Studios version, but a direct adaptation of Mary Shelley's Gothic novel for the stage. Victor Gialanella, the playwright, first brought this FRANKENSTEIN to Broadway in 1981 with all the bells, whistles, and lightning storms needed for any mad scientist's lair to shake, rattle, and raise the dead.
Gialanella's tale of death, life, and questionable medical ethics is on stage at the Bon Ton Studio at The Belmont, despite Gianella's belief that it can't be done in a black box theatre - The Belmont and director Jack Hartman prove that it's easily possible, and quite effectively. In fact, as with the Broadway original, a strong cast and great effects prove that they're far better than the material they're given - Gialanella is a soap opera writer (a Daytime Emmy winner for DAYS OF OUR LIVES), and there's a certain soap opera sentiment floating through what should be fine Gothic creepiness. While more faithful to Shelley's novel than Karloff's film version is, Gialanella's script sacrifices both the film's best qualities and the novel's insights for a flatness that has to be made up for by stagecraft, which abounds thanks to set designers Rene Staub and Joel Persing, some excellent lab props, and a cast that is able to convey much of what's missing in the script.
Casey gives serious effort to Victor Frankenstein, who's here not so mad as vaguely obsessive over a secret pet project. He's aided by his old college chum Henry Clerval, played by Phillip Rearich (fittingly Renfield in The Belmont's previous DRACULA), although the script makes them seem more surprised and upset by the idea that Victor's research might have been accurate than delighted at any kind of success. Casey and Rearich bring a great chemistry to the buddy pairing here that's very believable, and very affecting.
Kelly Warren, last seen at The Belmont in JEKYLL & HYDE, plays Elizabeth, Victor Frankenstein's fiancée. She looks lovely, and she's able to bring the part more than the script calls for, which is just to be a plot device - she's more than that, and her ability to convey sincere caring not only about Victor but about her father-in-law to be, the child William, and Victor's friend Henry, without either feeling forced or causing any wonder about Henry and Elizabeth, is a real strength on Warren's part. It would be easy for Rearich and Warren to push their characters' own longstanding friendship into questionable territory by missteps in performance, and their avoiding it is refreshing.
But wait, you ask, what about the real star of the show? Frankenstein's unnamed creature is played by Bob Haag, every bit the Shelley creature and not the Karloff monster. The makeup by Pressley McMaster and Susan Taylor is fine - no square skull or neck bolts, no neon green face, but a grey-green pallor of death, and discomfiting but not horrifying gaping wounds and scars. Gialanella has written the creation able to learn to speak, read, and reason, as Shelley did, a being who knows his Bible and has a stronger moral compass than his maker. Although he's around or responsible for several deaths, it's not until Victor Frankenstein lashes out at his own creation that Haag's character ever kills deliberately; he's an intelligent but clumsy child, capable of greater things than he's been given by a man who takes no responsibility for what he's done with his scientific talents. Unfortunately, Frankenstein's creation is the only character who shows capacity for intellectual or moral growth, which is slightly more in keeping with the film version than with the novel.
Hartman manages to keep the story from falling into camp not only through close direction but by some suitable sound choices - opening with the ominous music and vocals of "Carmina Burana," keeping chase music and quietly ominous music throughout, and avoiding falling for "The Thrilling, Chilling Sounds of the Haunted House" sound bites. Part of what makes the laboratory scenes so effective is that the set and props are stylized and not overdone, and that the sound is the same; there's no opportunity for unnecessary humor in what's become, in modern culture, nearly funny as a trope, no "He's ALIIIIIVE!" moment interfering with the dramA. Hartman's staging is effective because it's not overwrought. It's full of effects, but never over the top.
At its core, FRANKENSTEIN has never been horror, but Shakespearian tragedy - the man who knows too much and has too few ethics, the being with too little knowledge but gargantuan feelings without the words to convey them, and the people around them forced to suffer from their poor choices. It's a tale more unsettling than anything else, and for modern Americans, feeling unsettled may be the scariest feeling of all. If you can leave this production of FRANKENSTEIN without having questions in your mind about humanity and responsibility, you haven't been paying attention. FRANKENSTEIN, like Halloween itself, is much more than thrills and chills. See this production, and face your fears.
At The Belmont Theatre in York through October 29. Visit thebelmont.org for tickets and information.