Also see Scott's review of Evita
Following the mammoth critical, award, and financial success of The Producers, it was inevitable that Mel Brooks would look to musicalize more of his movies. However, the stage version of Young Frankenstein, currently playing on tour at the Aronoff Center in Cincinnati, Ohio, proves both that repeated success on Broadway is a difficult task and that not every film property is ideal for musical adaptation. Despite solid performances and lots of humor, this show fails to meet either the standards of The Producers musical or of the original, hilarious Young Frankenstein film.
Young Frankenstein is the tale of Frederick Frankenstein, a successful American brain surgeon, who visits Transylvania following the death of his grandfather, who had followed in the family tradition of creating creatures from dead tissue. With the assistance of his sexy assistant Inga, a goofy sidekick Igor, and his grandfather's ex-lover Frau Blucher, Dr. Frankenstein follows in his ancestors' footsteps and creates a monster. Comedic chaos ensues as the monster escapes and eventually kidnaps Frederick's fiancée Elizabeth.
The book by Mel Brooks and Thomas Meehan closely follows the screenplay by Brooks and Gene Wilder in structure and story. The 1974 film succeeded by parodying the classic Frankenstein tale and movies with subtle humor and was shot in visually nostalgic black and white along with 1930s style scene transitions. The musical, instead, goes for much more in-your-face broad and bawdy humor (very similar to The Producers) which seems a pale comparison to the film approach. While many of the numerous one-liners are very funny, it's difficult to build an entire show on them.
Mel Brooks the songwriter is even more of a mixed bag. His lyrics are often very funny in both content and words, containing some of the best rhymed and sung jokes around. But, they also lack substance much of the time and rely on lists too often. Weaker still is the music. Mr. Brooks has never claimed to be a trained or accomplished composer, but his tunes here are particular unmemorable (as compared to The Producers) and so many of them sound derivative of other showtunes. "Roll in the Hay" and "Deep Love" are probably the best of Brooks' songs, but the audience will simply leave singing Irving Berlin's "Puttin' On the Ritz", which is incorporated into the musical just as it was in the movie version.
Director /choreographer Susan Stroman certainly provides the musical with stellar showbiz razzamatazz, but this again is counter to what made the film so beloved. The visual humor comes across well, with the best example being Igor's antics with the castle door. However, much of the physical comedy, as well as most of the songs, never seem to grow organically from the story or characters. While Ms. Stroman's dances are crisp and athletic, they sometimes seem excessive. This is best seen in the overblown staging of "Puttin' On The Ritz", which unnecessarily becomes a huge production number for the entire cast. For the tour, Robert Billig capably leads a small, keyboard heavy orchestra.
Christopher Ryan (Frederick) is a capable song-and-dance man and pulls off the humor of the role adequately. As Igor, Cory English has most of the show's best comedic moments and certainly wins lots of laughs as a result. 2008 CCM grad Preston Truman Boyd does well giving The Monster both the necessary scary and funny qualities of this physically demanding role. Broadway vet David Benoit is effective as both the staunch Inspector Kemp and the lonely Hermit. The women of the cast make slightly stronger impressions. Synthia Link is sexy and silly as Inga, sings clear as a bell, and dances gracefully. Janine Divita is a sassy and forthright Elizabeth, and conveys commendable stage presence. As Frau Blucher, Joanna Glushak displays excellent comic timing and a big voice well suited to the role. The ensemble does well executing the choreography and in playing multiple parts throughout. While the traveling cast of Young Frankenstein is solid all-around, those audience members who saw the original Broadway cast of the musical (which admittedly is likely to be few) will recognize that none of these fine professionals is able to supplant the memory of the originals, and anyone performing these roles will also have to deal with comparisons to the famous film cast.
The set design by Robin Wagner is impressive in scope and size, and the costumes by William Ivey Long are showbiz flashy, and attractive, and mimic the film outfits at times. Peter Kaczorowski's lighting includes lots of thrilling special effects.
For some hearty laughs and good performances, the national tour of Young Frankenstein is fine entertainment. However, the show suffers when compared to the film version, or Mel Brooks' previous musical adaptation, The Producers. Young Frankenstein continues at the Aronoff Center in Cincinnati through November 28. 2010. For tickets, call 513-621-2787. Visit www.youngfrankensteinthemusical.com for more information on the tour.