YOUNG FRANKESTEIN (National Tour)
Book by Mel Brooks and Thomas Meehan; Music by Mel Brooks;
Lyrics by Mel Brooks
AT&T Performing Arts Center
Reviewed Performance 1/4/2011
Reviewed by John Garcia, Senior Chief Critic/Editor/Founder for John Garcia's THE COLUMN
As my abby normal brain begins to formulate, transcribe, and create my first review for 2011, a strange tingling feeling of d?j? vu surges through my body. Another musical based on a motion picture. That certainly feels like the norm now in the creation of the Broadway musical within the last 10-12 years. The list is too long now to mention. For this time around on this genre of "film turned into musical" we have the classic black and white Mel Brooks hit, YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN as the source for the stage. This film also happens to be one of my all time favorite Brooks films. I have that film memorized line by line, scene by scene, and frame by frame. The film contains some of Brooks most priceless comedic one liners that are classics. Who can forget:
"My god what knockers!" "Oh, thank you doctor"
"Would you like a roll in ze hay? Roll, roll, roll in ze hay!"
"There wolf. There castle."
"You take the blonde; I'll take the one in the turban."
"Abby something. Abby normal! That's the name."
"Would the doctor like a brandy before he retires? Perhaps some varm milk? Ovaltine?"
"Stay close to the candle, these stairs can be quite treacherous"
"Wait! What are you doing?! My father is very rich (pants unzip)?oomph! Wait! No?.wait?um??..Oh sweet mystery of life at last I found you!"
And the list goes on and on. I've lost count on how many times I've sat and watched this golden classic each time it pops up on TV. The sight gags and comic set ups are some of the most side splitting sequences ever filmed.
The stage version however when it opened on Broadway was not met with the same rapturous, glowing, critical raves as Brooks's previous juggernaut hit of one his films turned into stage musicals, THE PRODUCERS. And I have a personal theory as to why.
YOUNG FRANKESTEIN opened on Broadway at the Hilton Theater on November 8, 2007. After 485 performances it closed in January 2009. Adding salt to its wounds, it only received 3 Tony nominations, but not for Best musical. This was the year that also created major havoc and battles over the telecast. For the first time in its TV history, for some bizarre reason the Tony committee & CBS allowed non-nominated musicals to perform as well (including YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN) on the telecast.
The Hilton Theater is a gigantic theater, where it was originally named the Ford Center for the Performing Arts. The architects actually took two big vaudeville houses that were next to each other and combined them into one. The Hilton then was named just a year ago as the Foxwoods Theater. Currently the very troubled SPIDERMAN the musical is playing there.
Many Broadway critics in their reviews for YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN blamed the overblown, massive design in sets that swallowed up the actors as one its major flaws. But then there was also the slumbering musical score (Brooks wrote the score) and the book was no where near the golden comedic gem that the film was. They also slaughtered the majority of the original cast because they no where near the talents of the film's original stars. While it's not fair to compare a film to the stage version, it's going to happen no matter what. Especially a comedic classic such as this one.
What did generate reams of ink for the New York papers for FRANKENSTEIN was the jaw dropping prices that the producers were charging for tickets. It is well documented that Brooks and his producers felt certain that they had another astronomic hit like THE PRODUCERS on their hands. So they set the price for orchestra seats for the very rich. The New York Post in particular took wicked glee in publishing articles during its preview run on how the show was imploding both backstage and onstage, within the production staff, the cast, and even with Brooks himself. It was well documented in the press on how troubled the production was by the time it opened on Broadway.
Here's my theory on why I think the show flopped. If you look at Brooks film catalogue there are only a handful of films that have been seen by so, so, so many people. Such as YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN & BLAZING SADDLES. As for THE PRODUCERS, that was one film that registers in the lower ranks of most watched Brooks's films. I never saw the film until after I saw the original Broadway production. Thus, the creators had a better advantage of working on material-while known-wasn't as popular as a film as the after mentioned others. Also THE PRODUCERS had one of those once in a life time performances from Nathan Lane, Matthew Broderick, Cady Huffman, Gary Beach, and Roger Bart. Many who saw the show after these stars left it stated it just wasn't the same show.
I quite agree. I had the great luck of watching the original Broadway cast, but then saw the national tour. Talk about night and day. It was a completely different show that left me cold and I think I giggled only a few times. It just wasn't the same show. Thus I feel the stars who originated the stage version of YF had a much more difficult time in creating their own visions due to the public having the film's stars performances so embedded into their brains.
Now YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN has a national tour, which landed at the Winspear Opera house on Tuesday night. Did it succeed? Pull up a brain or two and let's discuss!
Alas I must agree that the majority of the score limps and gasps for artistic creativity throughout the evening. The songs have a very familiar ring of Brooks previous writing. Some of the melodies actually sound as the same melodies from his other films (in particular ROBIN HOOD: MEN IN TIGHTS & HISTORY OF THE WORLD PART 1). Songs need to move the plot along, give us character arc & development, and purpose. Brooks score struggles & fights to get within those elements, rarely succeeding. Some songs just collapse on stage due to the weakness in musical composition and it's elementary, paint by number lyrics. Examples of these include "The Brain"; "The Law"; "Life, Life"; He's Loose". The opening number is a clunkering mess that just doesn't gel (titled "The Happiest Town").
Other songs leave you sitting there hoping that they will match the comedic brilliance that the film achieved for those numbers to be inserted into it in the first place. That script (and the film stars performances) set up moments for some gut busting numbers. Alas the majority of them did not get there. It was so disappointing to see numbers like "Please Don't Touch Me"; "Listen to your Heart"; and "Please Send Me Someone" not get the ear splitting guffaws that they should have achieved. Instead they were met with soft chuckles.
A few did hit the mark though, such as "Together Again"; "Roll in the Hay"; He Vas my Boyfriend"; "Deep Love"; and of course "Puttin on the Ritz". Those songs generated solid loud laughs and the lyrics were lip smacking funny. I so wished Brooks had collaborated with another composer to help him compose much better songs for this musical.
Thomas Meehan & Brooks' book doesn't fare much better. Many of the classic film lines and set ups are there, but on stage several of them just tanked. They seem to lack that layer of hysterical comedic subtext, pace, and delivery that they demanded. As a major fanatic of the film, I missed not seeing some of the great scenes from the film, such as the dart game between Frederick & Inspector Kemp. Also the golden comedic scene when Elizabeth arrives at the castle is completely changed from the film, thus we lost one of the truly classic scenes of comedic genius (the hysterical exchange between Igor and her is gone now). The pastiche of new jokes seem wonky and out of sync for a lot of the evening. Either you groan because they obviously came from the old world of vaudeville that beg for the rim shot, or they were "blue", or quite topical. And somehow they all did not work up to its potential.
As for the production design, the one that was a tad perplexing was the sets by Robin Wagner. He did receive a Tony nod for it after all. The New York press wrote on and on about how grand and epic the sets were (including the laboratory). So I thought I would see a lot of that recreated here. Now I know when shows tour the sets are always tinkered with and scaled down to travel. But it was odd seeing so many major set pieces become just big, painted backdrops. Sure, there were pieces that slid in and out from the wings, but the backdrops were anti climatic for me.
William Ivey Long's costumes were festive and colorful as they usually are from this Tony award winning designer. The character Elizabeth got to wear the only sparkle on stage (the red bead gown and the champagne rhinestone encrusted one were gorgeous). The costumes for the villagers were also fetching and quite creative.
Peter Kaczorowski's lighting design was a knock out, especially for the transformation scene and for the big number "Puttin on the Ritz". Warning here, if you are not a fan of strobe lights I strongly suggest you bring sunglasses or just keep your head down.
The majority of the cast does a commendable job with the material they have to work with. The ensemble deserves glowing accolades for giving it their all in the dancing, singing, and acting departments. They brought superb energy and commitment to the big numbers. Two great examples of this were "Transylvania Mania" and the humongous, thundering show stopping number of the night, "Puttin on the Ritz".
I so feel the pain and struggle that the principals have to go through with their characterizations and performances. They have to claw, fight, and battle against the audience with all their might to forget the original film stars. The majority of them sadly were no match to the originals, and their performances suffered within this battle. Once you have seen Gene Wilder, Madeline Khan, Terri Garr, Gene Hackman, Cloris Leachman, and Kenneth Mars in those roles forever molded onto celluloid, it is near to impossible not to compare the stage principals to them.
Christopher Ryan portrays "Fredrick", the heir to the Frankenstein legacy and their long history of working with dead flesh coming to life. Ryan is a tall, lanky, handsome fellow who does possess charm. But he toils so hard to come from out of Gene Wilder's shadow (who originated the role in the film). He at times pushes too hard on the jokes and physical shtick. He does have a lovely tenor voice that does serve him well in his solos. Plus his chemistry with his fellow castmates is perfection. But he just cannot get those home runs of comedy gold that the role had in the film. But I commend him on trying his best.
David Benoit's performance as "Inspector Kemp" is a huge let down and one of the biggest failures within the cast. In the original Kenneth Mars created this Hungarian dialect that he squeezed every last drop of comic laughter out of. The accent was so thick and hard to understand that it set up a series of jokes that played out as the film progressed. Tragically Benoit goes no where near the accent, which was a major let down for me. Then there's the mechanical arm/hand. Here was the chance to create amazing physical comedy, but Benoit detours completely away from it. A very disappointing performance. Benoit does return in the second act as the blind Hermit. He does do a somewhat better job here. Although his make up, wig, and hair resemble Old Deuteronomy from CATS. In this role, Benoit rushed his lines so fast and kept jumping on the creature's reactions and the audience laughing that he lost his own jokes in the process.
"Inga" the laboratory assistant to Dr. Frankenstein is played with loads of va-va-va voom essence by Synthia Link. Ms. Link has a fantastic soprano voice that actually elevates the lackluster solos her character has. Plus how many sopranos can sing major high notes while slowly doing a split on a lab table? She does however miss the boat on and off within the comedy. Terri Garr had the perfect comedic timing in the film to match Wilder & Marty Feldman (the original Igor). Ms. Link does at time succeed here, but she seems to melt into the backdrops in some scenes because she can't keep up with her co stars. She does though have a delightful solo number with "Listen to Your Heart."
Janine Divita is "Elizabeth", the role that was played to perfection by the late comedy legend Madeline Khan. In the original Broadway version it was WILL & GRACE star Megan Mullally who created the stage role. Ms. Divita sings with a magnificent soprano voice that not only fills up the Winspear Opera house but I'm sure they could hear her in Mesquite. This talented thespian works overtime in trying to make the material work and achieve laughs. She half succeeds. She has the best ballad of the night with "Deep Love", which shows off her voice beautifully. But like her counterparts, she battles in attempting to make the role her own. Alas the role just isn't as funny as the film version.Ms. Divita fought a gallant battle to overcome Khan's firm reign on the role, but sadly came up short. Nonetheless, she was quite entertaining.
Cloris Leachman concocted one of the most hilarious characters ever put on film as "Frau Blucher". From the facial expressions to that awesome accent. Those are some very big shoes to fill, which Joanna Glushak tries with all her might to fill. Like Divita, Glushak has one of the best composed solos of the score with "He vas my Boyfriend", which is a showstopper. But like Ryan, she too forces and pushes so hard to make the comedy work. She slaves over the mediocre book to make the role funnier than what it is on paper. But once a joke does land in the comedic circle, she pushes it too hard, causing the laugh to land off kilter within the circle. It didn't help that her thick accent made it difficult at times to understand her. While she was most enjoyable in the role, it just wasn't up to par in comparison to Khan's iconic performance.
The best work that actually did match the originals and in the process created their own magical versions were Cory English as "Igor" and Preston Truman Boyd as "The Monster".
I first saw English on Broadway when he portrayed one of the proteans in the revival of A FUNNY THING... FORUM starring Nathan Lane. I still remember how funny he was in playing a variety of characters that the proteans do in that show. Now as Frankenstein's assistant with the movable hump, English provides the scene stealing performance of the evening. His work in this production achieves some of the best robust laughs of the night. The comedic pace, delivery and timing by English is impeccable. You have to sit close, but some of his facial expressions were hilarious to observe. Even when he wasn't the focus of the scene, he was so in character that he was achieving more laughs even then. The role was created by Marty Feldman in the film, and he stole the film for me. English achieved the impossible here. He was able to nail some of those oh so famous lines with his own interpretation that worked exquisitely here.
I honestly do not know if they were ad libs or if it was some of the new dialogue that Brooks & Meehan wrote for the stage, but English had the best one liners of the night. The scene with the chair was comedy heaven. It felt like he ad-libbed some of the lines going by the facial expressions of his fellow cast mates, which only made the scene even funnier. English is one of the few actors that actually was able to escape the shadow of the original star performance in the film. He was outstanding and stole the show!
Preston Truman Boyd did not have much in dialogue and song as "The Monster", and yet he still gave a first rate, scene stealing performance. His facial expressions were so spot on that you could not take your eyes off of him. His takes to the audience were priceless. The use of grunts, growling, hissing, and mumbling by Boyd were all exceptional choices. Boyd easily had the best number with "Puttin on the Ritz". This was a sensational 11:00 O'clock production number that became the showstopper of the night. Boyd tapped with Fred Astaire elegance, even with those massive black platform shoes that you know he stole out of Lady Gaga's closet. Peter Boyle created the role for film, but Boyd-like English- was able to escape Boyle's version and fabricated his own version, which he succeeded with excellent results here.
YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN does contain a less than stellar book and a hodgepodge, uneven musical score. It's like riding a creative rollercoaster, there are peaks and there are lows in regards to the book, score, and some of the principal performances.
Even with the flaws, the overall production does provide a highly enjoyable evening of musical theater. Some comedic films are so iconic that they become part of the language in today's society. Take MONTY PYTHON AND THE HOLY GRAIL. So many great lines from that film are repeated over and over today. The stage version for that one was SPAMALOT. I was able to see that one as well on Broadway and on tour and laughed so hard my head hurt. Those creators did a magnificent job of recreating and redefining from the original film version. That's why I so hoped and wished for with YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN. While sadly it is not on the same level as the film version, it will still entertain you. So take a roll in ze hay and head out to the Winspear!
Playing through January 23, 2011
Winspear Opera House, ATT Performing Arts Center