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Seattle by David-Edward Hughes

Musical Young Frankenstein Has
Monster Hit Potential

Young Frankenstein
Sutton Foster and Roger Bart
After several weeks of previews, during which it was feverishly tightened and tweaked, the stage version of Mel Brooks' Young Frankenstein opened at Seattle's Paramount Theatre Thursday night to as feverishly fervent a series of ovations (including a standing ovation at the end) as I have seen for any musical to hit town since the tryout for Hairspray in 2001. While Young Frankenstein has not been as ingeniously re-imagined as Hairspray, and isn't quite as near ready for Broadway, it is still a fiendishly funny frolic fueled by the old school expertise of Brooks and co-book writer Thomas Meehan, and the directorial and choreographic prowess of Susan Stroman.

The original Gene Wilder and Mel Brooks screenplay has been closely followed, and many of Brooks' original songs basically take famous lines from the film (such as "Please Don't Touch Me," "Roll in the Hay," and "He Vas My Boyfriend") into full blown musical numbers. The score, while jovially jokey in its lyrics with pleasantly pastiche styled music, isn't as memorable as his work on The Producers. The most original melody is a jaunty tune entitled "Surprise," but none of the songs hold a candle to the Irving Berlin interpolation of "Puttin' on the Ritz," and kudos to Brooks for not trying to write a song in the style of Berlin instead. The original is essential to this particular property.

Whereas the gargantuan hit stage musical version of The Producers was based on a cult classic Brooks film which many were unfamiliar with, the far more commercially successful film of Young Frankenstein, chock-a-block with beloved comic performances, casts a large shadow over this show. By and large the mega-talented cast step out of their predecessors' shadows and make the horror spoof their own, and those who are still struggling to put their own brand on a role should have achieved that by the November Broadway opening.

Roger Bart as Dr. Frederick Frankenstein ("That's Fronkensteen!") has the toughest task, taking on the role that Wilder played. A brilliant comic actor in his own right (remember his sidesplitting Carmen Ghia in The Producers?), Bart is simply working a bit too hard at the role right now, nailing the character's frenetic edge but needing to amp up his considerable charm in the show's rare quieter moments. He is a born song and dance man and, whether kicking the show off with his tongue twisting entrance number ("There is Nothing Like the Brain"), shining in a vaudeville romp of a duet with humpbacked sidekick Igor ("Together Again for the First Time") or leading a production number, he is a triple threat talent.

Megan Mullally as his socialite American fiancée Elizabeth does her most impressive musical theatre work to date, belting as if Merman-possessed, her sole act one number, "Please Don't Touch Me," and fervently delivering one of the silliest, low-down love ballads ("Deep Love") written for this or any other show. For dramatic symmetry, Brooks and Meehan should, and still could, contrive a way to bring Mullally to Transylvania in act one, because her talent and wacky character arrives with such force in her act two reappearance that she threatens to take over the show.

Tony award winner Sutton Foster is a charming, wholesomely sexy Inga. In "Roll in the Hay," an ingeniously staged and designed number, her winsome seduction solo "Listen to Your Heart," and over and over again during her featured production number moments high-kicking her long lovely legs ala Cyd Charisse, Foster displays the very reasons why she is one of the most often employed leading ladies on Broadway. If there is anything to fault, it is the way her Transylvanian accent comes and goes, particularly in her musical numbers.

Played as both an ode to Marty Feldman as well as every minor player who portrayed a deformed lab assistant in the Universal Studios horror pantheon, Christopher Fitzgerald is an endearing side-splitter as Igor (AKA "Eyegore"), a role that shows his varied talents off in a way that his Boq in Wicked could never begin to. Andrea Martin perhaps manages best of all the zanies in creating a Frau Blucher that stands shoulder to shoulder with, but rarely emulates, Cloris Leachman's exquisite work in the film. Her solo turn, a Kurt Weill via Kander & Ebb hoot to "He Vas My Boyfriend," showcases her underrated panache with a musical number. Shuler Hensley as the Monster (a role he has also played in the film Van Helsing) has a powerful presence which sucks you into watching his facial and body movements - critical to the success of his mainly mute role. And when Hensley does let loose in choreographic terms for "Puttin' on the Ritz" or to briefly vocalize on the "Deep Love" reprise, the only description adequate is (to borrow the Monster's famous lyric by Irving Berlin) super duper! Fred Applegate is amusing as the vengeful Inspector Kemp, but really gets to shine as the Blind Hermit, with a big Jolson style turn on "Please Send Me Someone," and in his subsequent gloriously comic scene with Hensley.

Director/choreographer Stroman gives her versatile and tireless ensemble of singer/dancers plenty of opportunities to impress. "Puttin' on the Ritz," greatly expanded from the Frederick/Monster duet it was on film, is Stroman's centerpiece achievement here and is highlighted by the Monster's "shadow dance" passage. Almost as luscious is the wacky act one finale, "Transylvania Mania." The most superfluous featured ensemble number, "Join the Family Business," would benefit from being pared down by about a third. The show, now at about 2 hours 30 plus, never feels too long, but just a bit more trimming and tightening will surely occur before the Broadway opening.

Robin Wagner's scenery design is lavish, funny, versatile and non-cumbersome - impressively so, considering the multiplicity of locales required. William Ivey Long's costumes are the perfect melding of '30s era fashion styles as if photographed using the rich old Technicolor process. Peter Kaczorowki's lighting design together with Marc Brickman's special effects design create some pretty nifty visuals, including a moment when Frederick drifts off into a dream sequence and darn if it doesn't look just like at the movies!

Doug Besterman's ideal orchestrations, along with Glen Kelly's music arrangements, bring out the best in Brooks' score. Musical director Patrick Brady leads a happily ample orchestra with flourish and flair.

A buoyant Brooks (alongside Stroman and Meehan) took the stage after the cast bows and invited the wildly cheering opening night crowd to come back to New York with the show. It seems to me that, regardless of the flap over inflated Broadway ticket prices and pre-opening critical skepticism, Young Frankenstein will settle in for a long and lucrative run on Broadway and beyond. Judging from how the audience here loved hearing the familiar lines and seeing the archetypal characters live onstage, I'd hazard a guess it may even outrun The Producers.

Young Frankenstein runs through September 1 at the Paramount Theatre, 911 Pine Street at 9th Avenue in downtown Seattle. For further information, visit www.theparamount.com.


Paul Kolnik



- David-Edward Hughes



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