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Review: Sally Struthers and Company Revive Mel Brooks' YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN to Glorious Life in La Mirada

Review: Sally Struthers and Company Revive Mel Brooks' YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN to Glorious Life in La Mirada

A superb, hilarious cast stages the So Cal debut of the show’s reworked London iteration

After the enormous critical and commercial success of the hit Tony Award-winning Broadway stage adaptation of THE PRODUCERS, it made perfect sense, of course, that theater producers would look to other titles in comedy legend Mel Brooks' rich film catalog for other source material to achieve similar results.

Many would have probably bet on his popular film Blazing Saddles to win the horserace to the Broadway stage, but, instead, the victor turned out to be YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN, Brooks' 2007 stage musical adaptation of his own brilliant 1974 black-and-white cult parody of classic monster films he directed and co-wrote with star Gene Wilder.

Both the film and its stage iteration are wicked madcap skewerings of Mary Shelley's classic novel, which have been overstuffed with silly antics, dark absurdist humor, and cheeky sexual innuendos that have become synonymous with Brooks' oeuvre. But, that brand of humor can also occasionally feel quite dated---particularly nowadays in our more forward-thinking, more behaviorally-sensitive modern times.

Yet the stage show itself, believe it or not, is actually even more over-the-top than its cinematic inspiration---where outlandish screw-ups, double-entendres, and over-emphasized sexuality is a reliable go-to for many of its funny moments.

Perhaps this is why---weary of any potential backlash---the rapturous Opening Night audience that greeted McCoy-Rigby Entertainment's winsome new production currently on stage at the La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts through October 9 were pre-warned via multiple lobby signs and social media posts that the show is much more humorously bawdy and crass than the normal fare that usually plays on this stage... lest there be oversensitive, über-offended patrons in attendance who dare to "Karen" their way to a refund when the jokes and scenes prove too much for them.

But, to be honest, the humor in the show is actually quite harmless, and is pretty tame compared to what you'd normally come across on, say, HBO Max. With that said, much of the sophomoric jokes and gags in YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN still surprisingly hold up, despite some being kinda corny, some being kinda dad-joke-y, and some instances where they feel like they brazenly straddle a fine line between hella funny and oh shit, you shouldn't say that stuff anymore (but, lordt help me for giggling)!

Overall, though---especially in this tighter, newly revised version lifted from the London West End production that's much zippier and sensible than the original---there is no denying that the show is a witty, super funny, and genuinely enjoyable musical comedy that earns plenty of laughs and smiles along the way, without ever taking itself too seriously. While it may not be THE PRODUCERS kind of funny, the show is still a great time, particularly when it features the production values and superb casting that this La Mirada Theater presentation can proudly boast.

Review: Sally Struthers and Company Revive Mel Brooks' YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN to Glorious Life in La Mirada
Maggie Ek, A.J. Holmes and Wesley Slade. Photo by Jason Niedle.

The show's chief baiting strategy involves its reverent treatment of its cinematic source material's many memorable (and often quotable) scenes that are recreated for the stage with great care. Yes, those looking for the iconic movie scenes involving the candle on the bookcase, the sound of the hypnotically mysterious violin, and even the blind loner in the woods will rejoice in their reappearance.

And, of course, an adaptation of the movie won't be complete without a restaging of "Puttin' On The Ritz," which here becomes an even more expanded full-out musical production number (by the way, mentioning any of these moments, by the way, are in no way "spoilers" for the show).

Nostalgia aside, for those without a history of seeing the movie that inspired it, they will be met with a musical overflowing with randy naughtiness, vaudevillian-inspired musical numbers crossed with belly-laugh inducing "ballads," and just wall-to-wall wackiness delivered by a top-notch cast of players that are hell-bent on making everyone in the theater laugh like crazy. Much of the humor is a bit old-school, sure, but it proves so cross-generational in its absurdity that laughter is just unavoidable (really, really young ones may not "get" it all, which may be a good thing haha).

Much like the film, the stage adaptation follows a similar storyline which finds renowned brain scientist Dr. Frederick Frankenstein (played here by the superb A.J. Holmes) learning that his notoriously eccentric "mad scientist" grandfather Dr. Victor Von Frankenstein has recently passed away and has bequeathed the younger Frankenstein a castle (and its contents) located in a tiny European village called Transylvania Heights.

Long embarrassed by his family's less than flattering reputation, Frederick---currently the Dean of Anatomy Studies at New York's Johns, Miriam, and Anthony Hopkins School of Medicine---always insists that his last name be pronounced "Fronk-Ehn-Steeeen" as to avoid any connection to his crazy relatives like Victor.

Unfortunately, in order to clear up any issues with this inheritance, Frederick must now travel to Transylvania in person, with the hopes of tying up these loose ends quickly followed by a swift exit back to his more respectable life in America, where his touch-averse fiancée Elizabeth (ham-tastic Sarah Wolter) awaits his return.

Review: Sally Struthers and Company Revive Mel Brooks' YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN to Glorious Life in La Mirada
A.J. Holmes (center) and company. Photo by Jason Niedle.

Upon arrival at the Transylvanian train station, Frederick is met by a strange-looking stranger Igor (the very funny Wesley Slade), the oddly creepy, hump-backed grandson of the elder Victor's own henchman. Though Frederick clearly wants nothing to do with his grandfather's "family business," Igor is hoping he could be Frederick's own henchman, that is should he choose to pick up where Victor left off, even going so far as to hire a new assistant for Frederick, a comely Swede named Inga (Maggie Ek) whose credentials appear to be just as desirable as her voluminous beauty.

After a rather, um, bouncy hayride up to the Frankenstein estate, Frederick meets the mysteriously unsettling castle caretaker Frau Blücher, played by the hilariously scene-stealing Sally Struthers (of All in the Family and Gilmore Girls fame). Soon Frederick discovers his grandfather's secret lab as well as the highly unorthodox but potentially groundbreaking work he conducted there, which, on the surface seems indeed "mad," but after further inspection, seems highly revolutionary---particularly in his work with dead brain tissue.

Of course, those familiar (or, heck, even unfamiliar) with the story all know where this is heading: Frederick's ad-hoc team manages to reanimate a giant, green-skinned corpse (Trent Mills) from the dead , with, uh, less than eloquent results---further raising his family's animosity with the already angry townsfolk of the village, weary of another cray-cray Frankenstein in their midst.

An excellent production of this biting musical comedy, La Mirada's YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN---under the propulsive, make-em-laugh direction of Jeff Whiting---benefits tremendously by utilizing the newly revised London version of the show, which, for me, flows and tracks so much better than the original version that was, frankly, filled with lots of extra fluff that does nothing to further move the story (or comedy) along.

Review: Sally Struthers and Company Revive Mel Brooks' YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN to Glorious Life in La Mirada
The company of La Mirada Theatre's YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN.
Photo by Jason Niedle.

In this revised version, the audience is smartly introduced to the main character right from the start, propelling the story off from the get-go rather than starting with a production number that only unnecessarily expands a minor plot point that can be achieved with literally just one or two lines of dialogue or lyrics (which, ha! it does in this version).

If you've seen the musical before, you certainly won't miss that opening song at all, nor will you miss that other slightly superfluous song that finds the ghosts of Frankensteins past haunting Frederick into taking up the "family business" (Frederick reading his grandfather's medical notes later in the first act does an equally good job in less time).

Though we may miss out on some great ensemble dancing and the visual theatrical treats that come with them with these deep cuts, the funny performances of the main cast (and the speed in which we get to them) are really what the audience came here to see. This new revised version does a great job of taking the audience to all the important (and hilarious) narrative milestones in a more efficient manner, allowing its players to really ham it up with their respective characterizations.

And, boy, do they ever!

Above all else, La Mirada's new production---as this hilarious show clearly demands---relies heavily on a comedically-blessed ensemble cast that can really unabashedly dive into the over-the-top material with gusto and spunk!

As the title character, Holmes---whom I fondly remember from THE BOOK OF MORMON tour---is perfectly cast in a character that requires a bit of smarmy smarts and self-confidence mixed in with judgmental snark and adorkable self-effacing silliness. He also has a great voice that doesn't feel like he needs to show off or one-up his peers. Slade, as his reliably funny Igor, is a laugh-riot sidekick, and his quirky rapport with Holmes' Frederick make up an entertaining comedy duo.

Review: Sally Struthers and Company Revive Mel Brooks' YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN to Glorious Life in La Mirada
A.J. Holmes and Wesley Slade. Photo by Jason Niedle.

This tightly-wound master and bumbling henchman pairing is so good that it can sometimes relegate Ek's poor Inga to fade a bit in the background in certain scenes, but, thankfully, when she steps forward or gets her seductive flirt on with Frederick, she proves to be divine in her own right. Meanwhile, Frederick's other paramour Elizabeth---played with unmistakable ferocity by Wolter---is a diva with a capital D, with every grand entrance and mannerism heightened and caffeinated for even the people in the farthest seats in the back. She chews the scenery and we happily pick up every crumb she leaves in her wake.

A loose flyleaf inserted in the program notes that the roles of Inspector Kemp and (later in Act 2) the "Hermit" are now being played by Gregory North (well, at least on Opening Night), and he is a standout as both, particularly in the latter role which highlights Brooks' penchant for silly sight gags. The London revision reduces the Inspector Kemp role significantly, which, while offering the actor tasked to play him less stage time, is, honestly, a good edit to YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN. The role's incomprehensible accented persona has always been sort of a slight nuisance in its original incarnation, as the audience struggles to hear the character's purposely garbled lines that don't prove that necessary in the comedy. Here, the character, though still at times absent-minded, is instead a much more commanding leader for the villagers, rather than just another cliché bumbling authority figure.

As the Monster that rises from the dead, Mills is an imposing, hulking presence but also expertly hints at a softer, vulnerable side that ensures the audience that he isn't to be feared. In a surprise to no one, the movie's signature scene involving him featured in a full production number of "Puttin' On The Ritz" is delightful (if even more so) in the stage iteration.

And lastly, I never thought that I would see my dear Babette from Gilmore Girls morph into a horny, heavily-accented, and erratically unstable castle caretaker/secret lover but, well, here we are---and I could not have been more pleasantly surprised. Though Emmy Award winner Struthers is the largest name on the marquee here, she earns it handily as a hard-working supporting scene-stealer, with every presence a delicious display of comedy gold. Seriously, her turn as Frau Blücher in this production is a true triumph, earning the loudest, longest laughs of the show, and easily becomes a big reason to purchase tickets.

In addition to its cast and its awesome ensemble, this YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN production also boasts sets marked with deceptively impressive grandeur (based on Robin Wagner's original scenic designs) made for a regional production, which have been visually enhanced by Jared A Sayeg's striking lighting (and lightning haha) design as well as Eric S. Elias' awesome pyrotechnics that pop (literally).

The show's colorful costumes (designed by Erika Senase and Maggie Hofmann) mix modern threads with vintage chic, offering the show a mysterious timelessness. I was also immensely pleased with the orchestral music as performed under music director Benet Braun (La Mirada's sound system is still, in my opinion, the best sounding of all the local theaters) and the rousing, peppy dance numbers choreographed by James Gray that were oh so fun. Overall, this production is really excelling on all fronts.

My first experience with the original stage iteration of YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN was the show's first national tour stop at the Pantages Theater in Hollywood (which also transferred up the freeway to Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa) back in 2010, where original cast members Roger Bart, Corey English, and Shuler Hensley reprised the roles they performed on Broadway. Even then, the show proved its silly, comedic chops as a stage musical, armed with crazy high jinks, many funny songs, and lots of meta, tongue-in-cheek humor performed as unsubtle as humanly possible.

Review: Sally Struthers and Company Revive Mel Brooks' YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN to Glorious Life in La Mirada
The company of La Mirada Theatre's YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN.
Photo by Jason Niedle.

Here in its new and improved iteration at the La Mirada Theater for the Performing Arts, YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN remains an electrified treat not to be missed! Get ready to laugh your brains out!

Follow this reviewer on Twitter: @cre8iveMLQ.

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Photos by Jason Niedle courtesy of La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts.

Performances of the McCoy Rigby Entertainment presentation of Mel Brooks' YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN at The La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts continue through Sunday, October 9, 2022. The theater is located at 14900 La Mirada Boulevard in the city of La Mirada. Parking is Free. For tickets, visit www.LaMiradaTheatre.com or call (562) 944-9801 or (714) 994-6310.

 




From This Author - Michael Quintos

A So. Cal. Contributing Editor since 2009, Michael Lawrence Quintos is a talented, mild-mannered Designer by day. But as night falls, he regularly performs on various stages everywhere as a Counter... (read more about this author)


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