At the Winspear, Mel Brooks' happy, tappy, snappy Young Frankenstein musical is electrifying.
As a cultural, historical icon exploited for stage and screen, Frankenstein's Monster is right up there with Jesus, Abe Lincoln and Santa Claus. You know the Monster at first glance: bolts through the neck, Cro Magnon forehead, ugly shoes. With a vocabulary limited to "fire bad!" and "friend good!," he embodies the worst aspects of the nightmare blind date, the neighbor from hell and the boogeyman assembled into one big, scary dude.
Which is why it's so much fun watching him sing and dance like a puce-complexioned Tommy Tune to Irving Berlin's "Puttin' on the Ritz."
He does that in the Broadway show The New Mel Brooks Musical: Young Frankenstein, whose national tour is now cracking up the villagers at the Winspear Opera House. Is it as funny as Brooks' musical The Producers? Definitely. Maybe funnier, if you consider Brooks' 1974 movie Young Frankenstein a better comedy laugh-for-laugh than his original film of The Producers (let's not even talk about the later movie version of the Producers musical, which was geferlech).
The current touring production of Young Frankenstein, its second outing following a re-staging and re-casting by Tony-winning director/choreographer Susan Stroman, delivers a high-voltage blast of hot young talent, all of whom out-sing, out-dance and out-funny the listless road company of The Producers that dragged through here a few years ago. It does help that the Winspear is home to the Lexus Broadway Series. (The Producers was a Dallas Summer Musicals offering at Fair Park.) At the acoustically sharp Winspear, you can actually hear every one of Brooks' jokes, most transferred right from his own movie: "It's Fronken-steen"; "It's pronounced Eye-gor"; "What hump?"; "He vasss my...boyfriend!" It's all there and more. Just like in the movie, the castle door has big knockers, and so do the 6-foot-tall chorus girls, which the movie didn't have.
In both film and musical, Brooks wisely shorthanded the basic Frankenstein story about a crazed Transylvanian doctor trying to bring a patchworked cadaver back to life through jolts of lightning. But who doesn't know the premise? This is only the latest in a nearly 200-year series of adaptations, homages and parodies based on Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley's 1818 novel Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus. Inspired by a lengthy dream, or so Shelley always claimed, the novel was published when its author was 19. Thank goodness she wasn't a light sleeper.
It's such a compelling tale that as far back as the 1800s, Frankenstein was being spun off into stage plays and unauthorized sequels. The first movie version was made at Edison Studios in 1910. Andy Warhol did his take on it with Flesh for Frankenstein, so did Tim Burton with Edward Scissorhands. Over the past century, the Monster has been portrayed on film by Boris Karloff (in the great Hollywood horror flicks from the 1930s), Michael Sarrazin, Randy Quaid and Robert DeNiro. We've seen Dr. Frank N. Furter concoct a perfect muscle-boy monster in The Rocky Horror Show on stage and screen and enjoyed the creature-as-dumb-dad as played by Fred Gwynne and later Edward Herrmann in TV's campy Munsters sitcom. Shelley's original story of a reanimated man now is as famous as anything Shakespeare wrote, having been rendered into every medium, including comic books, kiddie cartoons, carnival rides and even bowls of berry-flavored cubes that are part of a balanced breakfast.
The Mel Brooks musical falls into the cartoon/sugary-cereal category of interpretations—light, broad comedy and guilty pleasure—with barely a nod to the exaggerated German Expressionism that inspired Brooks from those old Karloff pictures. Gone is the vintage black-and-white look that Brooks used in 1974, though the musical's staging by Stroman crackles with its own style of vivid visual spectacle. The Monster partners Astaire-like with his giant shadow. There's wild Gypsy folk dancing, strobe lighting effects and an oversized puppet.
All aspects of the technical design successfully blend big-budget materials with whimsical ideas. Scenery by Robin Wagner takes the characters to a cruise ship, a fogbound train platform (allowing the doctor to utter one favorite line from the movie: "Pardon me, boy, is this the Transylvania Station?"), into the Frankenstein castle, down to the spooky dungeon laboratory and out into the woods with the torch-wielding torch wielders. Costumes by William Ivey Long are a fine mix of 1930s silhouettes and sexy-silly nurse, maid, crone, peasant and wench get-ups.
Able to present the musical in living color and with a bevy of chorines, Brooks also was freed from the strictures of movie ratings in writing his book and lyrics. He's bawd-lerized his old screenplay, adding double dollops of double entendres, which get winky-crude in a back-of-the-classroom-in-junior-high way. Dr. Frederick Frankenstein (played here by the lanky, handsome Christopher Ryan) is introduced at the top of the show with a song paying tribute to the human cerebellum: "Though your genitalia has been known to fail ya, you can bet your ass on the brain!"
Brooks works in as many puns, crotch and boob jokes and other standbys of low humor as he can in the show's zippy two and a half hours. But it's only mildly smutty stuff. "She's his assistant. She verks under him night und day," says the hideous, hilarious Frau Blucher (Joanna Glushak, an Andrea Martin lookalike), referring to the doctor's top-heavy sexpot helper, Inga (Synthia Link). (If you're worried about the horses' reaction to Frau Blucher, don't; they're there.)
Frankenstein and his pals sing songs titled "Roll in the Hay" (featuring yodeling as foreplay), "Transylvania Mania" (the big Act 1 closer) and "Deep Love," which finds the Monster (the adorably clunky Preston Truman Boyd, who doesn't get a line of dialogue until 10:30 p.m.) meeting specific needs of the doc's frigid fiancée (Janine Divita in the Madeline Kahn role). It's an appropriate and satisfying climax to the show.
The real high point of Act 2, of course, is "Puttin' on the Ritz," the one song Mel Brooks didn't write. Dressed in starched white tie and tails, the Monster joins Frankenstein in a tap-dance duet to prove that the big guy is a gentle "man about town." The bit was the biggest laugh in the movie (where the characters were played by the great Peter Boyle and Gene Wilder) and it's the best, longest laugh in the musical. The number goes on a bit long, even if Stroman's choreography is packed with witty surprises. It ends, as you'd expect, with the Monster leading a kick line complete with top hats and canes.
The one holdover from the original Broadway cast of Young Frankenstein is Cory English as the misshapen majordomo, Igor. More than any of the characters, Igor is Brooks' classic vaudeville clown, mugging and mincing like a Transylvanian cousin to the Marx Brothers. English can milk a joke till it turns to cheddar, popping in and out of scenes to drop the best and worst of Brooks' groaners with impish glee. On opening night, the energy of the whole cast was high and the show went like gangbusters. But watching English work the crowd as Igor, you get the impression that even on a slow night when punch lines aren't landing as planned, he'd be the one to get this show over the hump.
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