Too many ghosts crowd the stage of New York’s Hilton Theatre, where the new Mel Brooks musical Young Frankenstein opened November 8, 2007. I’m not even counting the literal ghosts, such as the ancestors of the eponymous Frederick Frankenstein. Using energetic song and dance as well as a scarily disjointed, truly monster-sized puppet of the familiar green-skinned, bolt-necked creature, they try to convince him to “Join the Family Business” and create his very own monster already. For the dozen or so people in the world who have never seen the 1974 film Young Frankenstein, or for that matter any horror film, I’ll end the suspense — he does. After all, what could go wrong?
I realize that complaining about unoriginality in a Broadway musical is rather like complaining that water gets you wet. Nor do I want to imply that there’s nothing to like in this loud, lavish musical, directed and choreographed by wonder-woman Susan Stroman and her army of design geniuses and state-of-the-art special-effects wizards — Robin Wagner (scenery), William Ivey Long (costumes), Peter Kaczorowski (lighting), Jonathan Deans (sound), and Marc Brickman (special effects).
I also realize that this Young Frankenstein has set itself a difficult course. On the plus side, it’s based on a beloved film (possibly Brooks’s best, certainly his most cohesive). On the negative side, it’s based on a beloved film — one that I would bet a fair percentage of the audience can quote a half-dozen lines from at the drop of a cat: “What knockers!” “Nice grouping.” “What hump?” “Abby…normal.” “Wait! I was gonna make espresso!” I could go on. (I overheard the person sitting behind me telling his companions that he watches the film at least once a month. That’s a lot of puns.)
For this stage version, Brooks pumps up the sexual subtexts that make many of the 1930s Universal horror movies so interesting to re-watch — especially those directed by clever gay director James Whale (Frankenstein, Bride of Frankenstein, The Invisible Man, etc.). Just as the film of Blazing Saddles derives its crude energy by revealing both the implicit and explicit racism in hundreds of westerns, Young Frankenstein peeled off the covers hiding the Victorian and Puritan fear/fascination with sex that make horror films such a delicious thrill.
However, what was kept at a low boil on screen (for a little while at least) is front and center on stage. For instance, this Frederick is specifically identified as a virgin (Gene Wilder looked as if he’d at least gotten to third base with his lab partner), and even Frau Blucher ends up with a live bed warmer.
As if surprising an audience that already knows the jokes while simultaneously adapting to a new medium weren’t enough of a challenge, Young Frankenstein is also the follow-up to the phenomenally successful Brooks/Stroman musical The Producers, which won a record dozen Tony Awards, made scalpers envious with its concept of selling the super-best seats for prices starting at around $400, and would probably still be running if the Chicago revival’s producers Fran and Barry Weissler were in charge, dragging in has-been TV stars and up-and-coming hip-hop artists to play the parts originated by Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick. (“Erik Estrada and Jay-Z as Max Bialystock and Leo Bloom, with Ricky Martin as Carmen Ghia!”)