BWW Review: Theatre UCF's YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN Shatters Lofty Expectations
Last week, I wrote an article looking at why Central Florida's collegiate theatre programs, and in particular Theatre UCF, consistently produce content at or above the level of local professional theatres. The next night I went to see UCF's production of Mel Brooks' YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN, the musical adaptation of one my favorite films. So, needless to say, as I walked into the theater, my expectations were already exceptionally high. Fortunately for me, and everyone else at the sold-out performance, this incredibly talented cast not only met those expectations, but shattered them.
Based on the iconic 1974 film of the same name that starred Gene Wilder, Peter Boyle, Cloris Leachman, Teri Garr, Madeline Kahn, and Marty Feldman, the musical follows brilliant New York surgeon Dr. Frederick Frankenstein (Kyle Laing) as he reluctantly travels back to his grandfather Victor's Transylvanian castle to settle his estate. After a lifetime of attempting to distance himself from Victor's infamous experiments and creatures, Frederick finds himself quickly ensconced in "The Family Business."
In UCF's production, brilliantly directed by Christopher Niess, Laing hues far closer to the Broadway Frederick, played by Tony-winner Roger Bart, than he does the film version from the late, great Gene Wilder. No matter your preference in Fredericks, Laing's performance is fantastic in its own right. With cartoonish facial expressions and wild (slightly delusional) eyes, Laing's Frankenstein flirts ever so dangerously with crossing the line from genius to lunatic, but always in the most enjoyable way possible.
Not only does Laing display a remarkable comic ability, but he has a very good voice as well. However, the pièce de résistance is his phenomenal dancing. As hyperbolic as this might seem, I type it with the utmost sincerity and without a single apology; in the second act showstopper "Puttin' on the Ritz," choreographer Mayme Paul has crafted the most exciting and entertaining musical number that I have seen since the title song of the 2011 Broadway revival of ANYTHING GOES.
Laing leads a tremendous group of students through this literally breathtaking tap number that is as funny as it is impressive. Though the rest of the run is sold out, this number in and of itself is worth paying top dollar to see.
After saying goodbye to his lukewarm fiancé Elizabeth (the practically perfect Savannah Rucks) in New York, when Frederick arrives in Eastern Europe he is assisted by the motliest of crews in Igor (Kent Collins), Inga (Amanda Hornberger), and Frau Blucher (Ally Rosenblum).
Collins proves to be a natural showman as the behumped assistant. He has a very nice voice and serves as a wonderful comedic foil Frederick. As the beautiful, buxom blonde, Hornberger takes ditziness to its comedic heights; it is near impossible to take your eyes off of her whenever she is on stage. In her signature song "Roll in the Hay," she is exceptionally dynamic, and more than a little sexy, however, her upper register isn't as strong on the Act II ballad "Listen to Your Heart."
Rosenblum is hysterical as the dark and dower Frankenstein housekeeper, though she doesn't appear nearly as old and grotesque as the film Blucher. As with all of the characters in Brooks' subtly bawdy show, Frau Blucher has her own particularly deviant past, and Rosenblum delivers it in spades in "He Vas My Boyfriend." A terrific voice and incredibly charismatic, she is one of many scene-stealers in the cast; also, all three, and Rucks, prove to be quality tappers in "Puttin' on the Ritz" as well.
What stands out with this cast, from principals to ensemble, is that everyone appears to simply be having fun. Clearly a substantial amount of work has gone, and continues to go, into the production, but every cast member seems to be having the time of his or her life.
Through no fault of her own, her second act tune "Surprise" is a clunker, but Rucks sounds magnificent on it anyway; in fact she slays throughout the entire show as the gorgeous vixen Elizabeth. She plays all of the right comedic notes as the smoky seductress, especially when her character develops a relationship with her fiancé's creature, played by Joey Herr.
As The Monster, Herr is an imposing and intimidating presence, but his performance, especially pre-brain transfer, is a delightfully funny riff on the classic "monster movie" interpretation of the creature. Herr adds a lot of humor to "Puttin' on the Ritz" and proves that he has a phenomenal voice later in the show
Also worth celebrating are the always fantastic Jarrett Poore as the Hermit, who leaves the audience in stitches in his lone (pun intended) scene, and Julian Kazenas is very funny, often providing his own sound effects, as Inspector Hans Kemp.
The scenic and projection designs, by Emily O'Sullivan, are fantastic, and especially impressive is Victor's lab set. Neiss' direction is full of the types of sight gags that are a hallmark of Brooks' movies, but there is also an infectious giddiness in the production that feels wonderfully authentic to this group. In addition to the marvelous work on "Puttin' on the Ritz," Paul has imbued her choreography with fun and creative twists, including what I think was a slight ode to Michael Jackson's "Thriller."
Central Florida has many wonderful theatre companies, but if you are a performing arts fan in the Orlando area, and you are not a regular visitor to Theatre UCF, you are missing out on some of the most thrilling and impressive work that the community has to offer.
Though this week's shows are sold out, you can check for standby tickets at Theatre UCF's website, or by calling 407-823-1500. If you miss out on seeing this show, let this serve as a lesson to get your tickets early for Theatre UCF shows.
What did you think of your trip to Transylvania? Let me know on Twitter @BWWMatt. And, "Like" and follow BWW Orlando on Facebook and Twitter using the buttons below.
Banner Credit: Kyle Laing and Amanda Hornberger. Photo Credit: Tony Firriolo | Theatre UCF