BWW Review: YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN at White Theatre
Now playing at the White Theatre on the campus of the Jewish Community Center in Overland Park is a musical version of the Mel Brooks' seminal work "Young Frankenstein." This is outstanding community theater.
Mel Brooks is a 91-year-old funny guy. It takes a certain twisted sense of humor to enjoy him because the jokes almost always go too far. Sadly for my wife (who must occasionally must suffer a Mel Brooks Marathon), I plead Guilty to being a huge fan of Mel. But Mel's humor is best when buffered by someone with a kinder view of the world. The idea for this story came from the late, great, kindly Gene Wilder. Gene was one of those people you have to love on sight. Think "Willy Wonka"
Wilder and Brooks wrote "Young Frankenstein" in the evenings while they were shooting "Blazing Saddles." The musical version came to be because of the success enjoyed by another Brooks movie turned musical. "The Producers" won 12 Tony awards. As he had with "The Producers," Mel teamed with the late Thomas Meehan on the book for "Young Frankenstein The Musical." Brooks wrote all the new music and lyrics himself.
Unlike the movie, the musical begins in the village below the Frankenstein Castle. They are delighted because Victor has just passed on. There will be no more Frankensteins in their life. But wait, there is one more.
He is Frederick Frankenstein (Joell Ramsdell), a professor of anatomy, at a prodigious medical school. He is, however, ashamed of his infamous ancestors. Frederick insists on being called Frankensteen instead of Frankenstein. Informed of Victor's death, Frederick heads for Transylvania to arrange for the disposition of the estate. At the dock, we meet his classy fiancé Elizabeth (Stasha Case), the look but don't touch lady.
Frederick arrives at the Transylvania train station with a classic Mel Brooks joke that I won't spoil for you here. Waiting for him is his grandfather's assistant Igor (Kipp Simmons) and his lab assistant to be... the comely Inga (Ashton Botts). They travel to the castle in an ox-cart (speaking some of the most unforgettable dialog) only to meet Victor's scary housekeeper, Frau Blucher (Annette Cook). You've now met all the major players with the exception of the Monster (Scott Fagen) himself. I'll leave you Mel Brooks virgins out there to be surprised by the rest of the show.
As an admitted Mel Brooks nut, "Young Frankenstein" is delightful. All the character parts are well performed. Outstanding is Igor (Kipp Simmons) who really needs to do something about that hump. Excellent is Frau Blucher (Annette Cook) who should visit the stables with a revolver and then find a new boyfriend who can see. (You're still verrrrry attractive.)
First-class is Inga (Ashton Botts) who rolls in the hay with the best of them. Superb is the Monster (Scott Fagen) who can not only put on a fine Ritz, but also has a nice baritone that I would have liked to have heard more of. Untouchable is Elizabeth (Stasha Case) until the right Monster with an outsized 'schwanzschtücker' comes along. It must be a certain "Mystery Of Life" that she waits for.
And last, but certainly not least, Frederick's (Joell Ramsdell) fine tenor and dancing feet are a pleasure. He should always remember the surprising gentleness that Gene Wilder wrote and performed into this character. His interpretation will always make this particular story special.
The way Mel Brooks structured this show, the ensemble is given a lot to do. I can't help but feel that a number of really good performances have been left out, but the length of this piece already makes that inevitable. I must mention Reed Uthe who triples in brass as Victor, Kemp, and Mr. Hilltop. Anyone not mentioned should not feel hurt. There are no weak portrayals.
Director Missy Koonce does a fine job of putting together this fun production. Coordinating with Musical Director Rachel Williams-Chase and Choreographer Steven Eubank, "Young Frankenstein" moves. I was especially impressed with the quick scene transitions and this is a show with nineteen scenes. The sets, lighting, and projections by Jayson Chandley were very good and effective to their complicated purpose. There is even an operating room table that levitates about ten feet into the flys.
In many ways, "The Producers" (with its 12 Tonys) is built in a very similar way to "Young Frankenstein." "The Producers" was great on stage with Nathan Lane and Mathew Broderick, but without them (even at the Kennedy Center)... not so much. I believe "Young Frankenstein" is the stronger tale that suffered during its original Broadway run from being second-in-line. The London Daily Mail recently said "It's an incorrigibly silly, brain-parking night out, sufficiently stuffed with the old Mel Brooks magic to get away with it." I agree.
"Mel Brooks Young Frankenstein" runs at the White Theater through November 19. If you are exceptionally easily offended, don't go. This is the height of Borsht Belt comedy. Children do enjoy. We attended a matinee. They don't get the dirty stuff. They do get the fun and silliness. Tickets can be purchased on the www.thejkc.org website or by telephone at 913-327-8000.
Photos courtesy of the White Theatre and Sarah Cotur