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Chicago by John Olson

Young Frankenstein
First National Tour

Cadillac Palace Theatre

Also see John's review of Graceland Revisited and Richard's review of Thoroughly Modern Millie

A Christmas Carol
Anne Horak, Roger Bart, Cory English, Joanna Glushak and (on table) Shuler Hensley
Given the vitriol hurled at this show around its opening on Broadway two years ago—for charging up to $450.00 a seat, for not reporting weekly grosses and for failing to meet expectations—one goes in to Mel Brooks' Young Frankenstein musical with questions. Is it a) as bad as they said, b) as much fun as Brooks' The Producers on stage or Young Frankenstein screen, or c) somewhere in between? The correct answer, to this observer, is most definitely somewhere in between. Brooks, director-choreographer Susan Stroman and bookwriter Thomas Meehan committed no crimes here and clearly meant to give audiences their money's worth. The show has production values in spades—Robin Wagner's gigantic set of Frankenstein's laboratory, flashy lighting and sound effects by Peter Kaczorowski and Jonathan Deans respectively, big dance numbers and, at least on Broadway, big stars. For the tour, Roger Bart is repeating his lead role as Dr. Frederick Frankenstein (grandson of the original mad scientist) and Shuler Hensley is, as he was on Broadway, The Monster. Bart is well known to general audiences from films and TV, Hensley not so much but ought to be. In the roles played on Broadway by Megan Mullally, Andrea Martin, Sutton Foster and Christopher Fitzgerald, we have some lesser known but very capable performers. Two years away from all the baggage that surrounded the Broadway opening, and priced typically for a national tour, this Young Frankenstein will probably not disappoint fans of the original film. It may be even more satisfying for those who have not seen the film and are unfamiliar with the many, many bits that are lifted directly from it into this musical.

The odd thing about The New Mel Brooks Musical Young Frankenstein, to use the complete title, is that it may be the first time in Brooks' long career that he lost sight of what he was doing. With his film Young Frankenstein, as well as his Blazing Saddles, which both opened in 1974, Brooks began a series of parodies of movie genres that lasted for 20 years, through Dracula: Dead and Loving It. In those films, and in The Producers, he knew what he was parodying. In Young Frankenstein the musical, he's no longer just skewering monster films of the '30s—in fact maybe he's even not parodying those films at all. He's parodying Al Jolson, Yiddish theater, Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht, film and stage songs of the '20s and '30s—most anything that is remotely connected to entertainment of those decades. I'm not big on insisting that "rules" in the arts must not be broken, but in this case the creators have come up with something that is not so much out of the box as it's a bunch of little boxes. It's basically Mel Brooks doing what he wants to do, what we've seen him do many times: lampoon broadly played entertainment by giving us even more broadly played entertainment. On their own, these bits can be funny. Here, it's just a big stew of Brooksiana that doesn't quite coalesce into a cohesive whole.

Even so, it's a big Broadway musical, with top-notch performers amidst those impressive production values. Roger Bart is a first-rate musical comedy star, especially delivering the goods in his duet with Igor "Together Again" and his solo sung to The Monster, "Man About Town." His take on the doctor is not that of a mad scientist, but more of the ordinary guy in extraordinary circumstances. It's not as manic as Gene Wilder's performance in the film, and is a little bland, but Bart's charm carries it off. Hensley seems wasted as The Monster, until the final scenes when we get to enjoy his big baritone vocals. His skill at physical comedy is shown in the scene with the blind Hermit (played perfectly by Broadway and The Producers veteran Brad Oscar, who also plays Inspector Kemp).

The remaining supporting players are all strong. Cory English as Igor gives a British Music Hall confidence to the part. Beth Curry, as the Doctor's egotistical fiancée, smoothly carries off her big comic number, "Please Don't Touch Me." Anne Horak is healthily sexy and sensual as assistant Inga, and Joanna Glushak an agreeably creepy Frau Blücher. The entire company scores in the big production number, Irving Berlin's "Puttin' on the Ritz," expanded from its role in the film.

The problem is not so much that Young Frankenstein fails to live up to expectations but that it doesn't exceed them or do very much that's surprising. It's fair enough for Brooks to have reprised the best jokes from the film, but you'd like to think he might come up with some good new ones as well. It seems Brooks, Stroman and Meehan stuck with the sorts of things that have worked for them before, mainly in The Producers, and it's tough to create a new sensation by imitating an old one. There's a lot of lightning in this show, but it's all of the literal kind, created by lighting designer Kaczorowski. Nothing like the kind of lighting that struck in this same place—the Cadillac Palace Theatre—where The Producers played to its first audiences in February 2001.

Young Frankenstein will play the Cadillac Palace Theatre at 151 W. Randolph through December 13, 2009. Tickets available at all Broadway in Chicago Box Offices, online at www.broadwayinchicago.com or by phone at 800-775-2000.


Photo: Paul Kolnik

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-- John Olson



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