The new Mel Brooks musical Young Frankenstein,” based on his classic film, opened on Broadway with strong word of mouth from Seattle, indicating Mr. Brooks was poised to top his mega smash hit The Producers. With a reported excess of $30 million in advance ticket sales the splashy new musical is already a success and nothing anyone might say will ultimately matter much, but here we go, Young Frankenstein is a big bloated monster of a show, an over amplified extravaganza, dazzling in every detail, but missing the charm of the original film upon which it was based. The bawdy, expensive looking replica of Mel Brook’s zany black and white film does have its appeal, but I’m not sure size is one them. Quite the opposite the mammoth scale of the Gothic set overwhelms the entire production and although many elements work, the inspired lunacy of his 1974 parody is decidedly in short supply.
Young Frankenstein is still very funny, but it suffers from a sameness that renders it lifeless and everything feels pushed like bigger is better and more is always necessary. Although amusing, the evening feels calculated, turning monotonous rather quickly. The production, however, is always impressive and with a reported budget of over $16 million no apparent expense has been spared to insure spectacular results.
The book by Mr. Brooks and Thomas Meehan, who collaborated with him on The Producers, is very close to the original, but while Young Frankenstein the movie was a witty homage to classic horror films, made memorable by some brilliant comic characterizations, the new musical has lost the satirical edge and loving appeal of its predecessor by bombarding us with brashness. In addition the songs by Mr. Brooks border on vulgar and do little to move the show along.
There are over 20 musical numbers in all and director-choreographer Susan Stroman has done a fine job sustaining the manic energy, but the routines lack inspired zaniness. They are entertaining, but after the first three dance numbers, they begin to blend together. Two or three raise the level giving us a taste of what we’ve been missing. There is the hysterical “Roll in The Hay” with a delightful Sutton Foster, and the witty "Transylvania Mania,” that ends the first act, but the dazzling show stopper is Irving Berlin’s "Puttin’ on the Ritz," where we finally get some heart and feel the creatures humanness. The number is a stunning achievement and exactly what the show needs more of.
The design work is stupendous as Robin Wagner’s set twirls, explodes, ascends and descends in rapid succession as needed. The focus is on the dramatically cavernous laboratory, where the monster amazingly comes to life. Bolts of electricity light up the heavens to punctuate the moment as startling jolts of thunder and lightning, deliver needed thrills right on cue.
The talented cast adds stylish zest, and the dancing is never less than spirited, but the ensemble seems diminished on the stage of the immense Hilton, lost on the enormous set with little but a never ending supply of corny jokes, lifted directly from the film. The actors work hard nonetheless, but the characters in “Young Frankenstein" are really caricatures used to send-up the story.
As a result Roger Bart’s job, as the insane scientist Dr. Frederick Frankenstein, who is the centerpiece of the show and the narrator, is almost impossible. Mr. Bart is a likeable actor, and a skilled comedian, who sings and dances well, but he is unfortunately either miscast or overwhelmed by the task while suffering a reported bad back. Holding up this show requires Herculean skills and his performance, while good, lacks neurotic edge, never catching fire with crazed intensity as he becomes embroiled in the laboratory.
All the performers are outstanding, but some fare better than others. Sutton Foster gets special kudos as Inga, Dr. Frankenstein’s sexy assistant, who yodels for foreplay. Megan Mullally (TV’s “Will and Grace”) in the Madeline Kahn role as Dr. Frankenstein’s fiancée Elizabeth is quite winning, displaying an interesting combination of snobbishness and sexual decadence, despite having some of the show’s worst songs. Christopher Fitzgerald as Igor the hunchback makes the character his own, and Shuler Hensley doesn’t have enough to do as the monster, but turns “Puttin On the Ritz.” into a riotous highlight. Andrea Martin as Flau Blucher, who runs the castle and frightens the horses, has found the perfect level of bold restraint to compliment the evening’s style.
Obviously we do not want to make comparisons, but Young Frankenstein isn’t nearly as fabulous as Mr. Brooks riotously successful hit The Producers, a film that seems more naturally suited for the stage than Young Frankenstein, a little gem, who’s apparent small charms as an excellent satire aren’t served by the big, exaggerated bawdy style. The show is entertaining, but don’t expect to fall in love.
By Gordin & Christiano
Originally Published in Dan’s Papers
“Young Frankenstein” opened on Broadway November 8, 2007 at the Hilton Theatre, 213 West 42nd St. Tickets can be purchased at Ticketmster.com, 212-307-4100 or at the box office.