Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - November 8, 2007
Young Frankenstein Book by Mel Brooks and Thomas Meehan. Music and lyrics by Mel Brooks. Direction and choreography by Susan Stroman. Musical supervision by Glen Kelly. Set design by Robin Wagner. Costume design by William Ivey Long. Lighting design by Peter Kaczorowski. Sound design by Jonathan Deans. Special effects designed by Marc Brickman. Wigs and hair designed by Paul Huntley. Make up designed by Angelina Avallone. Orchestrations by Doug Besterman. Cast: Roger Bart, Megan Mullally, Sutton Foster, Shuler Hensley, Andrea Martin, Fred Applegate, Christopher Fitzgerald, Heather Ayers, Jim Borstelmann, Paul Castree, Jack Doyle, Kevin Ligon, Linda Mugleston, Jen Lee Crowl, Renee Feder, James Gray, Amy Heggins, Eric Jackson, Krristin Marie Johnson, Matthew LaBanca, Barrett Martin, Christina Marie Norrup, Justin Patterson, Brian Shepard, Sarrah Strimel, Craig Waletzko, Courtney Young.
Most people learn this lesson by the second grade; Mel Brooks, who's 81, hasn't yet picked it up. Or, if he has, there's no evidence of it to be found in the flat-lining photocopy of a musical that is Young Frankenstein, which just opened at the Hilton. Brooks has attempted to attract second-time-around lightning not just with the property, which is based on his 1974 film comedy, but also with musical theatre itself. His only real success is making you realize how accomplished his first theatre-shaking show really was.
That was The Producers, which opened in 2001 (with Susan Stroman directing and choreographing) sounding a sonic boom that signaled the return to Broadway of the good-old-fashioned musical comedy the British Megamusical had all but eradicated in the previous two decades. It was an instant phenomenon, spurring ticket lines and demand unlike any seen in years, winning a record number of Tony Awards, and granting Brooks a triumphant cap on his already-extraordinary career. It felt inevitable that Brooks was just biding his time until he could move on to his next world-conquering musical project.
Move on he hasn't. He and Stroman have approached Young Frankenstein in precisely the opposite way they tackled The Producers: by transplanting instead of transforming. Here, Brooks's fidelity is so total that the show feels like it was pasted together by obsessed wannabes during their day-job lunch breaks, not seasoned pros.
In fact, it has more in common with Spamalot, the potato chips-and-beer adaptation that gleefully quotes lines from Monty Python and the Holy Grail more for the sake of its audience's expectations than out of dramatic necessity. In following Frederick Frankenstein (pronounced "Fronkensteen," thank you very much) from America to Transylvania to inherit the legacy of his grandfather (yes, that Frankenstein), it traipses along plenty of the gags that made the movie nearly frame-to-frame laughs. "Chattanooga Choo-Choo" riffing, giant knockers (on the castle door, that is), the constipated winnying of horses at every mention of a certain name - it's all here.
What's conspicuously missing is the sense that any of this is answering a greater theatrical calling, and that's what most distinguishes this show from its predecessor. Brooks realized that the cynical grit of his earlier show's source film was unsuited to a snappy stage Valentine, and jettisoned it (and a number of other things) in favor of a bigger and brighter Broadwayization on the same general theme. Replicating every bit, no matter how bite-sized or how dependent on the film's innate intimacy, makes Young Frankenstein more dutiful than droll. Worse, it forces everyone onstage to restrain themselves from unleashing their own charismatic uniqueness, when the film leads (including Gene Wilder, Madeline Kahn, and Cloris Leachman) doing just that made them a group for the record books
As Frederick's monstrous creation, Shuler Hensley does little more than moan and overturn things, which he does capably if unmemorably. Others make stronger impressions: Christopher Fitzgerald is all humpbacked impishness as Frederick's toady Igor (that's Eye-gore); Sutton Foster is the best she's ever been as Frederick's bombshell assistant Inga; Megan Mullally is a rambunctiously graceful vision as Frederick's abstinence-oriented girlfriend Elizabeth; and Andrea Martin is a desert-dry delight as Frau Blucher (neiiiiiiiigh!), the elder Frankenstein's main squeeze once upon a time.
It does this in spite of Stroman, who either needs to buy a bigger bag of tricks or stop pulling from the one that's propelled her career for almost two decades. Her hard-sell staging and reliance on dances in lines, dances with props, and dances full of stomp and fury yet signifying nothing display their age and inappropriateness when not servicing the show-biz glitz that's her preferred territory.
The rest of the creative team held over from The Producers hasn't fallen into a similar rut, but instead surpassed their earlier efforts. Robin Wagner's towering Gothic designs for the sprawling Transylvanian environs, William Ivey Long's peasant-chic cheeky getups for the cast, Peter Kaczorowski's playful lights, and Patrick S. Brady's confident conducting (of a luxurious 24-piece orchestra) all set exactly the right mood for a Big Broadway Musical in an era in which such things are generally shunned as artifacts of a simpler and less-expensive time. This might lead to those infamous $450 "premier" seats, but at least Young Frankenstein isn't content to look and sound like it cost $4.50, as so many shows today are.
Special mention must also be made of Glen Kelly, whose (ahem) "music arrangements and supervision" continue to help Brooks's songs sound like the classics they aren't. This is not, for the record, a surprise. Making things appear better than they are is the ultimate raison d'etre of Young Frankenstein, which is so intent on being what it isn't that it never realizes its own inherent potential - it has to settle for being moderately amusing and never full-out funny. Its failures, however, are entirely its own: The problem with Young Frankenstein isn't that it's not The Producers. It's that it doesn't produce.