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!”)
So expectations are running high, along with schadenfreude at the ready from the Broadway community. And then there are the ghosts. The current show’s performers are dogged by the spirits of their cinematic predecessors, and I’m happy to report that with one or two exceptions the live actors succeed in pushing those specters into the wings. At a few inspired moments, the present even shoves the past all the way out the stage door.
Christopher Fitzgerald re-imagines and rejuvenates Igor (pronounced Eye-gor), turning this archetypal sidekick/stooge into a droll, animated, in-the-moment presence. Whether he’s distracting suspicious villagers from the newly reanimated monster’s howls by crooning the tune to the new dance sensation, “Transylvania Mania,” or welcoming Frederick to town with the vaudeville-style buddy song “Together Again,” Fitzgerald infuses Igor with his own brand of madcap while respecting the path laid down by the late Marty Feldman.
Musical comedy pro Sutton Foster puts her own tantalizing, wide-eyed stamp on Inga, extending Teri Garr’s “Would you like to have a roll in the hay?” line into a cleverly staged number titled, yes, “Roll in the Hay.” Her grip on Inga’s mittel-European accent slips about as often as she shows off her fabulous legs, high-kicking and doing a serious split on the lab’s operating table, but who cares? As in Thoroughly Modern Millie and The Drowsy Chaperone, she seemingly effortlessly transmits her pleasure in performing directly to the audience.
Shuler Hensley’s monster, Andrea Martin’s Frau Blucher and Fred Applegate’s Inspector Kemp didn’t make me forget Peter Boyle, Cloris Leachman, or Kenneth Mars, but their expert timing and command of the stage made me smile. Martin turned one triumphant Leachman line, “He vas my boyfriend!”, into a Weimar-style he-done-me-wrong song that mixed the best of Marlene Dietrich and Lotte Lenya. Hensley acquitted himself well in “Puttin’ on the Ritz,” no mean feat in shoes with six-inch soles, and transformed effectively into a charmingly articulate soul in the play’s final few minutes. Applegate is merely serviceable as the poseable action figure Kemp, but he really does himself proud as the schlemiel blind hermit, successfully channeling Mammy-praising Al Jolson with his longing song, “Please Send Me Someone.”
Roger Bart, in the marathon part of Frederick, shows off his considerable musical comedy skills early and often, beginning with the Gilbert-and-Sullivan-speed patter in his paean to his most-used organ, “The Brain.” He also uses his vocal trademark, a sudden shift to his upper register when exasperated beyond endurance.
Bart’s tightrope walk is especially tricky. As the nominally sane person surrounded by kooks, creeps and crazies, he must keep the plot moving forward while only gradually revealing his own megalomania — the arrogance that allows him to create “his” monster even when he knows how very dangerous that can be. If he isn’t yet hitting every note on that scale, he’s playing a pleasant enough tune.
Which brings me to the only real disappointment in the cast, Megan Mullally, as Frederick’s cock-teasing fiancée Elizabeth. Talk about high expectations: Mullally’s Karen on “Will & Grace” delivered a boatload of giggles during the show’s eight seasons. You would think that if anyone could step into the fright wig of the late, great Madeline Kahn, it would be Mullally. She’s no musical comedy novice, and in any case her singing voice isn’t the problem. Nor is she attempting a Xerox of Kahn’s performance or her unique speech patterns — that petulant baby-doll voice rising to a buzzsaw shriek when she loses her grip.
Mullally is at least trying to find her own way. She uses a nasal Locust Valley Lockjaw accent to turn her Elizabeth into the kind of madcap socialite that populated so many 1930s screwball comedies, and she certainly dresses the part. But her character makes no sense (book writers Brooks and Thomas Meehan share much of the blame here). She’s cold to Frederick, keeping her goodies from him until their planned wedding night, but hints that she sleeps around with any Tom, Dick or Spencer Wadsworth III in the Social Register. She should be isolated from the other characters (both because she’s a snob and because they’re in on the monster’s creation and she’s not), but she leads a dance number in her first appearance and then shows up with an entourage of servants. She catches Frederick and Inga far more in flagrante than in the movie, yet seems to forgive him for his fraulein fling almost immediately.
Yes, few of the other characters are much more than the sum of their accents and eccentricities — I realize this is a musical, and a Mel Brooks one at that — but this Elizabeth’s contradictions were annoying rather than comedically fruitful. Worse, they made me dislike not only the character but the actress playing her — a feat I would not have thought possible.
I think Brooks, Meehan, and Stroman built up this part, either to tempt Mullally (her TV work makes her the biggest “name” in the cast, especially to non-theatergoers) or to keep her happy once she was on board. The film used the character sparingly, to great effect: Kahn got one funny, character-defining scene near the beginning, then stayed offscreen until she provided the final, hilarious sex joke that climaxes the final third of the film.
It also doesn’t help that, with the exception of her post-coital song, “Deep Love,” Elizabeth’s other numbers are lame. Which brings me to the other problem with this show: its score, by Mel Brooks. Mel has admitted he’s less a true composer than a melody-maker, with music arranger/supervisor Glen Kelly turning Mel’s snatches into a full-bodied score.
The tunes themselves are familiar without being memorable, and while the lyrics catch a lot of the Brooksian brio, some are simple to the point of stupidity. When “Puttin’ on the Ritz” finally arrives midway through Act II, I was relieved not only because it’s one of my favorite numbers, but because it was written by the deceptively simple Irving Berlin, not the simplistic Mel Brooks.
Not that Mel is merely a lucky hack, but on first listen, there’s little here on the level of his character-defining “I Want to be a Producer,” his charming “That Face,” the rousing “Keep it Gay” or the tour-de-forcing “Betrayed” from The Producers. See what I mean about ghosts?
What saves Young Frankenstein, over and over again, is the directing prowess and choreographic invention of Stroman. No one builds a number like she does — just when you think “Puttin’ on the Ritz” can’t go any further, she brings out a chorus in white tie, top hat, tails, and monster boots with six-inch soles (that must be a trick — you can’t actually tap-dance in those, can you?). Whether her staging space is as narrow as a hay cart or as wide as the full proscenium, she gets the most out of everything she’s been given, marshaling effect after effect: smoke, strobe lights, projections, bolts of electricity in the lab, as well as the aforementioned puppets and her corps of talented dancers. Brooks, Mullally, and people’s fond memories of the film are what will bring people in, but it’s Stroman and her merry players who will send them out with a smile.