BWW Review: YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN at The Des Moines Playhouse
It is a known fact that any cold heart can be warmed by a seven foot mute monster in tap shoes singing Irving Berlin's "Puttin' on the Ritz". If you happen to be a fan of Mel Brooks' film Young Frankenstein, you already know this. But, if you happen to be like me and have never seen the iconic film, you need to go see The Des Moines Playhouse's production of Young Frankenstein immediately. Titled "The New Mel Brooks Musical," this production, directed by Maxwell Schaeffer, successfully brings die hard fans and newbies together into the zany and irreverent world of Mel Brooks while being one of the most polished Playhouse productions I have seen in a long time.
Now for those who are still a little confused as to who Mel Brooks is, you probably have seen or heard references to at least one of his films including Blazing Saddles, Spaceballs, or Robin Hood: Men in Tights. You are probably even familiar with Brooks' other movie turned musical called The Producers that swept the Tony Awards in 2001. In fact, the musical Young Frankenstein, based on the 1974 movie of the same name starring Gene Wilder, comes directly out of the success of The Producers. The most interesting difference between the two is that the original movie The Producers was not as highly acclaimed as the movie Young Frankenstein, which harms Young Frankenstein's authenticity. Most of the audience knows when the iconic lines are coming, and even those like me who have only heard references to the film could guess which lines were a sure bet to be included in the script. When the lines did not land as well as they do in the film (it is hard to top Gene Wilder), there was an awkwardness in the air that revealed the truth that Young Frankenstein the musical will never be as good as the real thing.
That's not to say that the musical is not greatly enjoyable. I found myself laughing very hard throughout the show, which can be attributed to the fine performances of the cast. Charlie Reese, who was impressively performing in Noce's Tick Tick BOOM during the rehearsal process for this show, plays Dr. Frederick Frankenstein (pronounced Fronkensteen) who is the famous Dr. Frankenstein's grandson. After inheriting his grandfather's estate, Frederick must leave his fiancee Elizabeth (Jackie Schmillen) and settle property issues in Transylvania where he meets the henchman Igor (pronounced eye-gor and played by Brett Spahr), the assistant Inga (PaTricia Arvanis), and the mysterious Frau Blücher (Mary Bricker). The story takes a turn when Frederick discovers his grandfather's laboratory and creates a monster of his own who escapes and causes havoc throughout the town. The mad cap comedy attempts to resolve the havoc while throwing twists, tap dances, and an odd encounter with a blind old man.
Reese has the difficult task of supporting the weight of the show through a part that Wilder originated, which he does effectively by making Frederick his own very likeable character. He also maneuvers the show around any deficiencies in the script and uses his impressive voice to soar through the score while spitting out scientific knowledge at light speed in the song "The Brain". Other fine performances include Spahr's flexible and odd Igor, Arvanis' sweet and simple Inga, and Bricker's Frau Blücher who brings the audience to uncontrollable laughter in her song "He Vas My Boyfriend." The company members are also a stand out, as they have to constantly perform a wide style of dances (Alsion Shafer is choreographer) as different characters number after number in this ensemble heavy show.
I would say the only major problem that some of the leads have is getting to the root of Mel Brooks' humor and hamming it up even more. The one actress who seemed to perfectly accomplish this was Schmillen's Elizabeth, whose part admittedly calls for her to chew the scenery and demand attention from the audience. My favorite moment of the show came in act two when Schmillen surprises everyone in Transylvania through a belt-tastic song after she was last seen in America at the top of act one. After this, the show picks up the comedic speed for the rest of performance and Mel Brooks' zany humor comes to the foreground. It was in these moments that I felt like I was brought into a new comedic inside circle that others in the audience already knew.
Probably the most impressive aspects of Young Frankenstein were the scenic and lighting design by Nicholas Amundson and Virgil Kleinhesselink. The Playhouse pulled out all stops for this production, which was clear in the seamless transition between sets, quantity of set pieces, and various lighting effects. I particularly enjoyed the gorgeous city silhouettes that were created in multiple backdrops by cutting out the buildings, castles, and skyscrapers. There was also a common theme of skin and the human body throughout the set, which made it so fascinating and appropriately grim.
But, we must return to the famous scene on everyone's mind. It's act two and Frederick and the monster, a thankless role played wonderfully by Adam Yankowy, are set to perform "Putting on the Ritz" for the audience to reveal the monster's talent. The audience has been waiting all night to see this famous cinematic scene live on stage. I even heard countless audience members wondering how they were going to stage the number before the show started. And...when the moment came...everyone in the audience was greatly relieved that the scene was absolutely hilarious. Will it ever be as good as the real thing? No, but it sure is fun! In fact, as I left Young Frankenstein, I immediately craved to watch the original movie to see if there were jokes that I did not get at first listen, or just to see old Playhouse regular Cloris Leachman as Frau Blücher in the original movie (who also makes a very slight cameo from afar in this current production). I applaud The Des Moines Playhouse for tackling this production and bringing some wonderful humor to audiences with such technical ease. Bottom line: If you are in the mood for a hilarious and light hearted night, go see Young Frankenstein!
The New Mel Brooks Musical: Young Frankenstein
Mar. 17 - Apr. 9, 2017
The Des Moines Playhouse