BWW Review: Eight O'Clock Theatre Puts on the Ritz with Mel Brooks' YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN
Mel Brooks is in great company. With Blazing Saddles and YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN, both released in 1974, he became one of only a handful of movie directors to release two filmic masterpieces in the same year. With this near-impossible task, he joins such luminaries as Steven Spielberg (Jurassic Park and Schindler's List in 1993), Francis Ford Coppola (The Conversation and The Godfather, Part 2 in 1974) and Alfred Hitchcock (Dial M for Murder and Rear Window in 1954). And yes, for all of you trivia hounds, the great John Ford had three masterpieces in a single year: Drums Along the Mohawk, Young Mr. Lincoln and Stagecoach all came out in 1939. That's pretty stellar company for this comic genius.
Since Brooks' The Producers became such a hilarious hit, going from screen to award-winning stage musical, it made sense for YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN to follow suit. (Sadly, Blazing Saddles, the funniest of all Brooks' films, is perhaps too politically incorrect nowadays for a successful musical version to be launched, although rumors of Brooks working on it have been around for almost a decade and is even alluded to at the end of YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN: "Like ping pong and paddles/Maybe next year, Blazing Saddles!") Although The Producers still remains one of the three funniest musicals ever written (for the record, the other two are A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum and The Book of Mormon), YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN is not so fortunate. This monster mash of a musical only lasted a little more than a year on Broadway and, as written, does not hold a candelabra to the 1974 movie. It only boasts a few standout songs ("Together Again for the First Time," "He Vas My Boyfriend," and "Deep Love"); interestingly, its most famous (and best) number turns out to be Irving Berlin's classic, "Puttin' on the Ritz," the duet between Dr. Frankenstein and his monster.
The songs of YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN (music and lyrics by Mel Brooks) are sometimes clever, but most don't carry that magic Brooks touch. Some, like "Join the Family Business," are forced into the story and seem to prolong the plot unnecessarily; it also looks like something out of the ubiquitous but equally uninspired Addams Family: The Musical. Another, "Listen to Your Heart" near the start of Act 2, seems like a retread of The Producers' Act 2 opener, "That Face." The musical seems to simply re-create the most beloved scenes from the movie (the rotating bookcase sequence; the blind man scene; and, of course, "Puttin' on the Ritz"), and leave it at that (though the "Puttin' on the Ritz" number has been marvelously expanded). The writing seems forced for laughs, and the songs distinctly unmemorable and difficult to hum.
I wonder what someone who's never seen the classic film thinks of it; do they find its iconic moments as funny as someone who lives and breathes in naughty Mel Brooksville? YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN is not indicative of the anarchic, achingly-hilarious Brooks spirit that we have known and loved for years, the one whose works "rise below vulgarity" (to coin his term).
That's why I thank God for Eight O'Clock Theatre. Flawed as this written work is, the community theatre does just about the best job with the material as humanly possible. Their YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN is one marvelous production, from each cast member to the backstage people, from the director down to each musician in the orchestra. Watching this production (making a silk purse from a sow's ear), I realized that other community theaters need to pay the fine folks at Eight O'Clock a visit to see how to do productions right.
The cast is tops.
Leading the way is Steven Fox as Dr. Frederick Frankenstein, the young scientist who denies his father's name at first but soon, in Transylvania, proudly walks in his father's "footshteps" by bringing a dead man back to life and creating a monster. Fox, so good in Avenue Q earlier in the year, resembles a mustachioed Ryan Gosling and carries the show on his young shoulders. His hair grows wilder and wilder (like Gene Wilder?) that at one point he looks like the lead singer of A Flock of Seagulls.
As his bestie sidekick and overall show scene-stealer, Igor (pronounced Eye-gor), Domenic Bisesti quickly became an audience favorite with his zany energy and spot-on timing. He has a moveable hump and jumps about the stage like a child in need of Ritalin. As in the movie, he picks the wrong brain ("Abby Normal") and gets in a wrestling match with a fox fur, the latter something that must be seen to be believed. In the end, he's more Alan Ruck than Marty Feldman, but it's a winning performance.
Fox and Bisesti's duet, "Together Again for the First Time," is one of the highlights of the show. (If there's any number that you can whistle--and there are not many here that you take with you--then this is it.)
Miranda Wolf's Inga is one of my favorite parts in YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN. Her oversexed "Roll in the Hay" is like a hayride with highlights and positions straight from The Joy of Sex. She yodels at the end of it, earning much applause from the audience. She's splendid.
Equally good is Gloria Rice's Elizabeth, Dr. Frankenstein's fiancée. Her "Please Don't Touch Me" is a sort of ode to abstinence and even creates its own odd dance craze. But it's her "Deep Love" that will not be forgotten. The song, a loving salute to the endowment of her over-sized lover, is beautifully rendered. And Ms. Rice, donning a Bride of Frankenstein wig, brings down the house with it.
Gay Lora Grooms is sensational as Frau Blucher--part Judith Anderson in Rebecca, with a touch of Cloris Leachman thrown in for good measure. (As in the movie, whenever you say her name, the horses frantically neigh.) Her "He Vas My Boyfriend" could not be better.
As the monster, AJ Quenell is actually quite lovable. Yes, he grunts and chases the Transylvanians around, but he's endearing like a child--a giant Baby Huey in Slimer green makeup. When he sings his first line in "Puttin' on the Ritz," the audience went wild. And his shadow tap-dancing during the number (a fine tapper, Faythe Kelly, plays his shadow) was just the right touch.
As the one-armed, one-legged Inspector Kemp, Rand Smith became another favorite (tied with Ms. Wolf). He has an amazing singing voice and at one point sustains a note for an alarmingly long time. Ben Taylor is quite good with a strong singing voice as the ghost of Victor von Frankenstein, even though his song, "Join the Family Business," was not my favorite. And James Holzwarth makes the most as the blind hermit (but nothing can beat the Gene Hackman scene from the original).
But a show like this lives and dies with its ensemble, and this is one to die for. They are a fabulous lot: David O'Brien, Michael Sporck, Rick Laitenberger, Ashton Sarlo, David W. Collins, Caroline Simpson, Sarah Libes, Alivia Quatrocki, Griffin Spriggs, James Sheppard, Rei Capote, Michelle Crien, Jonathan Foster, Jason Goldstein, Gloria Moranski, and Maggie Musco. Special mention goes to Janelle Vinachi and Faythe Kelly as the anti-Blucher horses, Blacken and Decker. In songs like "The Happiest Town in Town," "Please Don't Touch Me," and "Transylvania Mania," the ensemble works so well together, each one in character, each one important to the telling of this tale. And they never lack energy.
Director Amy Fee does a wonderful job of keeping YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN moving. This is one tight production, especially with so many grand set pieces moving about. (It's a long show, but the director keeps the action fluid.) And her choreography, aided by Jonathan Pouliot, is second to none. "Puttin' on the Ritz" may be one of my favorite musical moments of the year, and the audience's ovation after the number, including a few who stood right then and there (the show was far from over), says it all.
Musical Director William Coleman leads the cast in out-of-this-world harmonies and powerful vocals. And his orchestra that he conducted drove the entire show: With Latoya McCormick on keyboards; Brooke Stuart on drums; Dan Kolosky on drums; Carlos Walker on violin (quite important in this production); Joe Bonelli on trumpet; Colleen Chrien on trombone; Gary Wright on horn; and Tony Fuoco and Josh Hollenbeck on reeds.
Debbi Lastinger's costumes work wonders, and best of all is Mike Billings' set design. This is one terrific-looking production, with amazing sets, backdrops, and Dalton Hamilton's evocative lighting. Take one looks at the various sets, the way they are engineered throughout the show, and you will see why Eight O'Clock Theatre isn't your normal community theatre. Everything comes together in this fine production; they have taken a so-so musical and have turned it into comic gold.
EOT's production of YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN plays at the Central Park Performing Arts Center in Largo until July 21st