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.