BWW Review: Cumberland County Playhouse's YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN is a Monster Hit With Hancock at the Helm
Who'd have ever thought a seven-foot-tall, dark, handsome and green chap - crafted from the bits and pieces of various fellows gone home to meet their maker, as it were - could prove to be so likable, charming and, we daresay, sexy? But leave it to Mel Brooks (and Gene Wilder, his co-writer on the 1974 film) to create such a protagonist and to surround him with memorable characters in a story set to music that's a wonderful homage to the very best of classic Broadway and silver screen musicals!
You'll find that and so much more to love in Cumberland County Playhouse's superb production of Young Frankenstein, The Mel Brooks Musical, now onstage at the venerable Crossville theater through October 24 (which should allow you plenty of opportunities for multiple return visits should the spirit move you). Based on the 45-year-old film of the same name (that wasn't a musical, of course), the stage iteration of Young Frankenstein, directed with imagination and wit by Britt Hancock, is one of the year's best offerings from a company that's having what is perhaps its best season to date - after more than a half-century of bringing the magic of live theater to its audiences, CCP knows better than most what works and what doesn't.
Make no mistake about it, Hancock's production of Young Frankenstein works on every level: starting with his remarkable cast (including Jason Ross, Grayson Yockey, Lauren Marshall, Ross Griffin, DeAnna Etchison, Heather McCall and so many more talented individuals), the visually stunning physical trappings of the production (designers Andy Wallach, Jeremiah Stuart, Curtis Phillips and Matt Bundy have clearly outdone themselves), the high-spirited choreography of Leila Jones and Charlie Munday, and the expert musicianship coming from the orchestra pit of Ron Murphy and his players. Should Young Frankenstein, The Mel Brooks Musical, become known instead as Young Frankenstein, The Britt Hancock/CCP Musical, it wouldn't surprise us in the least.
Of course, nothing about this comes as a surprise to theater-goers who've had the opportunity to be inspired by the slate of shows onstage at CCP in 2019 (and long before that, truth be told). Rather, it serves as the cherry on top of the very rich, very satisfying sundae of theatrical treats assembled by producing director Bryce McDonald and his team of theater artisans. The fact that Hancock, himself, was among cast members for the national tour of Young Frankenstein (he played, among other characters, the hermit, a role assayed here by the multi-talented Daniel Black) some years ago only adds to his resume, boasting enough bona fides to fuel anyone's imagination and career for decades to come.
A parody of James Whale's iconic 1931 film treatment of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein and its 1939 sequel, Son of Frankenstein (among others), Young Frankenstein the musical may not have won as much critical acclaim or Tony Awards at its predecessor The Producers did for its Broadway run (if you're keeping score, Young Frankenstein was only nominated for three, not winning any, while The Producers carted off 12, count 'em 12, Tonys), but for my money Young Frankenstein is more consistently laugh-out-loud funny and far more of an affectionate Valentine to the classic film musicals and horror films it so genuinely evokes in every scene, every song, every moment of its near three-hours of running time.
Young Frankenstein isn't life-changing nor is it even historically edifying, but why should it be? In unsettled times like these, the fact that a show can take you away from the real world and immerse you in nothing more than light-hearted escapism is enough to recommend it to audiences of all backgrounds. It's just good fun, with jokes to appeal to people of all ages, as part of an engaging take on a centuries-old tale (based on Mary Shelley's novel that's subtitled "The Modern Prometheus") about a young scientist's efforts to reanimate life in a creature assembled from a pile of sundry body parts (oh, sweet mystery of life - some of those assorted organs are greater than the sum of their parts) and an extra brain found lying around in a dark and cavernous castle cum laboratory.
But what might be frightening, alarming or startling in other treatments of Shelley's tale only serves to delight and entertain in Brooks' fanciful, madcap version of the story in which the 1930s era Frederick, the scion of the Frankenstein family, leaves his job at New York's best teaching hospital to journey back to eastern Europe to claim his inheritance after the not-so-untimely of his grandfather, the widely vilified and universally scorned and derided Victor Frankenstein, whose medical experiments and patently evil machinations have left the whole neighborhood awash in innuendo and fevered speculation. As expected, particularly if you are a fan of the movie, the resulting musical is filled with all manner of bad puns, double entendres and sexual situations fraught with such outlandish behavior that you'll be chuckling, chortling and guffawing away as if there is indeed no tomorrow.
Brooks' eminently hummable tunes for Young Frankenstein manage to advance the story in their own, offbeat (cynical, sardonic and downright funny) way, and are diverting enough to set your feet a-tapping and your funny bone a-tingling and, if you completely suspend disbelief in order to just wallow in the wild and woolly journey through the unlikely even picturesque vistas created by this horror/science fictional/romantic comedy under Hancock and company's aegis will ensure you'll exit the theater with a lighter-than-air bounce in your step.
Even Irving Berlin's "Puttin' On the Ritz" is given the full Busby Berkeley-inspired treatment by choreographer Leila Jones and her assistant Charlie Munday and the cast manages to capture the zany sense of humor imbedded in Brooks' film even while dancing their collective heart out with expert execution and sublime theatricality. By the time that moment arrives in act two, however, you won't be surprised by the energy exuded by the cast since Young Frankenstein - from start to finish - is impeccably staged and beautifully mounted.
As Frederick Frankenstein (that's pronounced "fronk-en-steen," thank you very much, to distinguish him from his infamous forebears), Jason Ross shows off his ample versatility, bringing his character to life with artistic precision and comic wizardry that is his stock-in-trade. Paired with Ross Griffin as Igor (he of the mysteriously moving hump), his wonderfully weird aide-de-camp, Ross has never been funnier nor has Griffin been more entertaining. Together, the two men create a sublime comic team the likes of which can be referred to with reverence.
In fact, while Hancock's direction of the musical ensures that it moves quickly, but not frenetically, to achieve maximum comic impact, it may be his skillful eye for casting that truly distinguishes this production from others to come before it. Grayson Yockey is the perfect actor to portray the creature, somehow delivering a fully realized characterization with mostly grunts and groans for his dialogue. Yockey has never been more appealing onstage, nor has he exhibited more stage presence than he does in Young Frankenstein (and this follows his most recent role onstage as an Elvis-inspired pharaoh in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat).
The show's trio of de facto leading women - DeAnna Etchison as Inga, the buxom and beautiful lab assistant to Frederick; Lauren Marshall as Frau Blucher, whose mere mention of her name can set horses to neighing all over Transylvania; and Heather McCall as Frederick's madcap socialite fiancée Elizabeth Benning - command the stage with the same commitment on display from Ross, Griffin and Yockey. More importantly, each woman takes on a role made iconic onstage and in film and manages to create fresh and appealing portrayals of their own that manage to eclipse memories of the earlier actresses to assay the roles. Etchison grows more confident with every successive role on the CCP stage (her "Roll in the Hay" is terrific), while Marshall is given the opportunity to show off her own comedic bona fides in memorable fashion ("He Vas My Boyfriend" will knock your socks off) and McCall, quite frankly, has never been better than she is as the haughty, elegant and highly sexed Elizabeth (whose rendition of "Sweet Mystery of Life" sends the audience off in gales of laughter and "Deep Love" is filled with enough delicious double entendres to satisfy you for a lifetime).
The always on-point Black is well-cast in a number of roles, including the hermit and Inspector Kemp, while Cory Clark, Michael Ruff and Zachary Taylor are given their own moments in the spotlight. Likewise, all members of the ensemble - Malachi Banegas, Justin Burr, Chris Hallowes, Ethan Hall, Emma Jordan, Rachel Lawrence, Jensen Crain-Foster, Jess Griffin, Hannah Hays, Caitlin Schaub, McKena Silva and Nick Sterling - show off their estimable skills throughout the riotously funny show.
Andy Wallach's gorgeous costumes outfit Hancock's cast in silver screen perfection, while Curtis Phillips' exquisite set and projection design provide the perfect setting for the mayhem and hijinks that follow Frederick from his home in New York City back to the family manse in Transylvania. Jeremiah Stuart's lighting design provides the ideal murkiness and mystery for the goings-on about the place and Matt Budy's sound design add an element to the overall production that guarantees its success.
Murphy's musical direction sets a high bar for every other production onstage in a Tennessee theater, so exemplary it is, and his pit orchestra (which includes Jacob Miller, Jordan Morack, Rachel McManus, Tony Greco, David Garrison, Phil Barham, Wayne Robbins, Andy Nelson and Chet Hayes - and a sub-in by Matt McNeil at the performance reviewed) bring Brooks' score to life with unparalleled expertise.
Young Frankenstein, The New Mel Brooks Musical. Book by Mel Brooks and Thomas Meehan. Music and lyrics by Mel Brooks. Directed by Britt Hancock. Musical direction by Ron Murphy. Choreography by Leila Jones, assisted by Charlie Munday. Presented by Cumberland County Playhouse, Crossville. Through October 24. For tickets and other information, go to www.ccplayhouse.com or call (931) 484-5000. Running time: 2 hours, 50 minutes (with one 15-minute intermission).