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Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Steve Blanchard and Christiane Noll.
Photo by Carol Rosegg.

Of the countless questions inspired by the new musical Frankenstein, the two most pressing are these: How did men find so much time to go to the gym in the 1700s? And where did they find gyms?

The rippling abs and pulsating pecs Steve Blanchard bares throughout Mark Baron and Jeffrey Jackson's bombastic new musical at 37 Arts are indeed impressive. Whether his character, the tortured and ungodly reanimated progeny of Victor Frankenstein, is stalking and murdering his way through Europe or even luring his creator to the frigid Arctic for a final epic showdown, rest assured that Blanchard's shirt invariably stays open.

Whether this was a make-or-break rider in Blanchard's contract to compensate for years of hiding behind furry prosthetics in Broadway's Beauty and the Beast is an issue best hashed out by Blanchard's agents. But the hopeless mess surrounding Blanchard, which more readily resembles Boris Karloff in the famous 1931 Frankenstein film than it does Abercrombie & Fitch, is everyone's problem.

Jackson (book and lyrics) and Baron (music) have gone to extravagant lengths in interviews to tout their fidelity to Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley's early 19th-century novel, a suspenseful cautionary tale about man's disastrous inclination to play God. But in working from Gary P. Cohen's original story adaptation, the authors have done little more than prove the consummate value that often exists in deviating from the source material. Just about every other version, from Karloff's classic to Mel Brooks's hilarious 1974 tweak Young Frankenstein (the stage version of which opens on Broadway next week), has located more of Shelley's heart and soul.

This Frankenstein is absorbed, as are so many of today's musicals, with pretty people power belting emotional nonsense. The only glancing insights we receive into the human mind are in the form of broad declarations of intent that would not be out of place in most musicals in the mostly defunct British pop opera school. Victor (Hunter Foster) is a tormented genius who's been obsessed with death ever since the early loss of his mother (Becky Barta) to scarlet fever. But he's rejected by small-minded academics and carries out his experiments into restoring life to dead tissue, one of which results in the creature who tries to slaughter his way into his father's heart when he's not padding across the runways of the 18th-century world's fashion capitals.

He isn't silent, however, despite how he's often portrayed - he has plenty to say, and sing. (Blanchard's pointed baritone is at least as well-trained as his muscles.) So the creature ruminates endlessly about the pathetic nature of existence, which has doomed him to a lifetime (deathtime?) of sexless isolation. Victor inexplicably grows a conscience when prevailed upon to fashion it a mate, and puts an end to her afterlife before it's begun. That's the final straw, and just the excuse the creature needs to begin a rampage in the general directions of Victor's father Alphonse (Eric Michael Gillett) and bethrothed Elizabeth (Christiane Noll), all while moaning about his sorry lot.

All of this has indeed been lifted more or less wholesale from Shelley, but has been stripped of so much of its weight and frightening occasion that it feels as insignificant as a dusty young-adult novel. Bill Fennelly has acted less as director and more of traffic cop, moving people about the colorless jumble of platforms constituting Kevin Judge's unit set without giving them much purpose. The production's only sense of visual life comes from Michael Clark's alternately precious and pretentious projections, which would rate an A for effort and a solid B- for appropriateness of content in PowerPoint 101.

The actors trapped amid all this give their gamest Miss Saigon performances, but barely register as people: Only Noll, whose warm smile and throbbing soprano could wake the dead as easily as any technological contraption, registers as a flesh-and-blood inhabitant of this world. Barta projects a thorough niceness during her brief minutes at the center of the action, and Gillett comes close to maintaining his dignity in his thankless role. But most of the performers come across the way Jim Stanek does as Victor's friend and rival Henry Clerval: utterly invisible but for fleeting phrases of hard-sell lyrics set against ear-lacquering tunes that most C-list rock bands would dismiss as square.

Hunter Foster
Photo by Carol Rosegg.

You can't, however, ignore Foster, who earns his trucker's license trying to control this careening show. You must admire his stamina and his resilience - he's the focus of nearly every scene, and must sing the most throat-clenching songs, but he drenches everything he does in a bulletproof irony that tries to find the comedy in this tragedy and fails. His general manner is one of a petulant university student who's been forced to switch majors two quarters before graduation, not of a determined scientist whose quest for life results only in death.

Foster's presence is ideal for the faux reality of shows like Urinetown, which are powered by their own quirky takes on existence, but is less effective in shows where actors' personalities are the only thing separating the audience from the street. That's probably the best explanation for Blanchard's state of continual undress: Eye candy can keep people in their seats when the show they're watching cannot. That doesn't explain, though, why costume designer Emily Pepper insisted the gorgeous Noll be forever bundled from head to toe. Why disenfranchise half of Frankenstein's audience when it needs all the help it can get?

37 Arts, 450 West 37th Street
Running Time: 2 hours 15 minutes, with one Intermission
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Ticketmaster

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