REVIEW: Mel Brooks' "YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN" — La Mirada Theatre & McCoy Rigby Entertainment
Inspector Kemp: “A riot is an ungly thingk... undt, I tink, that it is chust about time ve had vun.”
Five years ago, the scariest comedy of all time became resurrected as Mel Brooks’ musical adaptation of his comedy, “Young Frankenstein” celebrated its official London version opening at West End’s Garrick Theatre, helmed once again by the great Susan Stroman. This time with a leaner look – smaller, swifter set pieces, along with an excision of some superfluous scenes as well as a few production numbers that weighed down the original clunky Broadway production of 2007 – even the show title was reduced, and suddenly, the old material was zapped into new life, finding a fresh pulse in musical theater once again.
A tighter, more intimate version was born, harnessing what made the film so successful (it was definitely a different kettle of celluloid when the film was first released in 1974, made up from a genre pastiche of Depression-era American monster movies), with more up-close views of the characters and their relationships.
Finally, Mel’s hopped-up souffle of witty, low-brow humor about a brilliant American doctor who finds his heart (among other body parts) in Transylvania had finally found its after-party fun again. Which is why there was so much excitement in the air last Saturday evening at the press opening for The Southern California Premiere of the newly revised London production. The show is set to run through October 9th at La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts in La Mirada.
Featuring songs by Mel Brooks and a book by Mr. Brooks and Thomas Meehan, his collaborator on “The Producers” — one thing is certain…the show has a high density of talent. It surely has the hardest-working ensemble, led by an amiable and prodigiously talented A. J. Holmes as the good doctor, piling on the gags relentlessly as it wittily parodies musicals past and present. And most of those gags, in a kettle of Catskills humor primarily lifted from the movie, are still brilliantly funny.
“Young Frankenstein” tells the tale of Frederick Frankenstein, a notable New York neuroscientist who is forced to travel to Transylvania in order to claim an inheritance from his genius, but deranged and recently departed grandfather. Upon his arrival, Frankenstein is greeted by a myriad of eccentric characters, including a hunchbacked henchman named Igor (Wesley Slade), his voluptuous, yodeling lab assistant, Inga (Maggie Ek), who has a degree in Laboratory Science from the local community college, and Frau Blücher (Sally Struthers; “All in The Family,” “The Getaway” – with Steve McQueen & Ali McGraw), his grandfather’s ex-housekeeper and live-in girlfriend. Frederick soon realizes he must decide whether to escape from his grandfather’s madness or to continue his dark work.
The musical is, in part, a send-up of the original 1931 James Whale Frankenstein movie. It is even more, however, a love letter to the rackety world of American vaudeville. Frederick and his dorsally-challenged sidekick, Igor, launch into a front-cloth dance-routine at first sight. Best of all is a sequence where the Monster seeks refuge with a blind hermit (Gregory North; “Into The Woods”) who serves him hot soup, wine and cigars with staggeringly ill-directed aim. Think the trembling-waiter gag from “One man, Two Guvnors.” Just as funny!
And, in a composition that is almost as outrageous as “Springtime for Hitler,” the transmogrified Monster leads a tap-dancing chorus in the show’s best-known sequence, “Puttin’ on the Ritz,” which blossoms from a goofy front-curtain routine to a full-scale fantasia with a chorus of top-hatted, tailcoated tappers dancing their heads off beneath a frenzy of strobes.
Choreographer James Gray pulls out all the stops for this one, and it has to be the most purely exhilarating 10 minutes anywhere. It comes when Dr. Frankenstein introduces his show-business-trained creature to the world by having him perform the 1929 Irving Berlin classic. But what really makes it fly is Mr. Mill’s evocation of the monster’s pleasure in what he’s doing. This big galoot of a mannequin is being seduced by the singular joys of musical comedy and loving it.
Director Jeff Whiting orchestrates the extravaganza perfectly and Robin Wagner’s set designs have just the right antiquarian oddity. The cast is also good enough to banish memories of the movie prototypes. Mr. Holmes as Frederick avoids crazed-scientist shtick to give us a credible portrait of a professor driven by the lust for experiments and experiments with lust. Mr. Slade is both funny and touching as the faithful Igor, Ms. Ek lights up the stage as the incandescent Inga, and Mr. Mills as the Monster inescapably gains our sympathy.
As Elizabeth, Frederick’s well-heeled high-strung, untouchable fiancée, the suitably arched Sarah Wolter (late as Countess Charlotte in “A Little Night Music”) has the unenviable job of countermanding memories of the sublime Madeline Kahn (who created the part on screen), bringing a fresh character to the role. Looking like a madcap heiress in Erika Senase and Maggie Hofmann’s swanky costumes, Ms. Wolter plays the lockjaw society floozy with an amusing mix of self-love and slutty depravity, but with exceptional vocal mastery. And when Frederick’s discarded fiance sings “Deep Love,” we can faintly hear the plangent refrains of a Lloyd Webber number being slightly mocked during our deep grins.
Not to be outdone, Maggie Ek (of “Newsies” and “Little Women”) is delicious as Dr. Frankenstein’s voluptuous young assistant, Inga, who uses yodeling as foreplay. The deadpan brio friskiness of her “Roll in the Hay” is a high point, when, in the course of a wagon-ride to the castle reveals a remarkable capacity to fork hay (“I’m a very hard forker,” she announces).
And, as the superannuated lover of the original doctor, the iconic Sally Struthers (who headlines the show) makes the role of fan-favorite caretaker Frau Blücher all her own, especially when she launches into the song, “He Vas My Boyfriend,” that instantly evokes Cabaret, even down to the way she nonchalantly drags a chair behind her.
With Frau Blucher as your run-of-the-mill creepy castle's eerie, sour-faced, mysterious housekeeper, you can't really take care of a castle this strange without being a little weird yourself. She even scares the horses, who whinny in fear whenever her name is mentioned. You never know what Ms. Struthers was going to say or do and that unpredictable quality was part of her unparalleled magic onstage.
Trent Mills (who played Shrek in “Shrek The Musical”) is terrific, turning Frankenstein’s monster into the most human character onstage. Mr. Mills is not only a scintillating singer, he also gets to show off some fine silent-comedy skills as the fearsome Monster who just wants to be loved. But for some reason I couldn’t get Everybody Loves Raymond’s dad out of my head.
Gregory North does droll double duty as wooden-armed Inspector Kemp (replacing Joe Hart for this performance) and, in one of the more successfully translated film vignettes, also the Blind Hermit. If you remember, Gene Hackman landed the hermit role in the film because Wilder was a frequent tennis partner, which sparked one of the most memorable sequences in comedic history. In this case, I don’t think you could find a better inspector than the inimitable Mr. North, whose Broadway credits and national tours seem endless. Playing the military know-it-all who has lost two limbs to the previous doctor's monster, it turns out it cost him a fortune to be treated at the local hospital…
How much? "An arm and a leg."
Go ahead – Laugh. Plenty of us did Saturday.
LA MIRADA THEATRE FOR THE PERFORMING ARTS & MCCOY RIGBY ENTERTAINMENT PRESENTS: “MEL BROOKS’ YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN,” Book by Mel Brooks and Thomas Meehan; Music and Lyrics by Mr. Brooks; based on the story and screenplay by Gene Wilder and Mr. Brooks and on the original motion picture by 20th Century Fox; Original Direction & Choreography by Susan Stroman; Directed by Jeff Whiting; Choreography by James Gray; Orchestrations by Doug Besterman & Mark Cumberland; Musical Direction by Benet Braun; Sets by Robin Wagner; Costumes by Erika Senase & Maggie Hofmann; Lighting by Jared A. Sayeg; Sound by Philip G. Allen; Wig, Hair & Makeup by Kaitlin Yagen; Pyrotechnic Design by Eric S. Elias; Prosthetic Design by Ralis Kahn; Casting by Lindsay Brooks; Technical Direction by Kevin Clowes; General Management by Patti McCoy Jacob; Production Management by Ana Lara, Lindsay Brooks, David Nestor; Production Stage Management by John W. Calder III; Assistant Stage Management by Lisa Palmire; Publicist David Elzer/Demand PR; Marketing Sweibel Arts Innovation & Leadership.
STARRING SALLY STRUTHERS AS FRAU BLUCHER, WITH: A.J. Holmes (Dr. Frederick Frankenstein), Sarah Wolter (Elizabeth Benning), Maggie Ek (Inga), Trent Mills (the Monster), Wesley Slade (Igor), Joe Hart (Inspector Kemp/The Hermit), Ryan Perry Marks (Felix), Austin Schulte (Bob/Ritz Specialty), Missy Marion (Tasha), Isabella De Souza Moore (Basha), Elle May Patterson (Masha), Cheyenne Green (Sasha), Grant Hodges, Carl Draper, Rodrigo Varandas, Austin Schulte (The Transylvania Quartet), Carl Draper, Austin Schulte (Equines), Grant Hodges, Ryan Perry Marks, Austin Schulte (Medical Students).
For tickets, order online at www.lamiradatheatre.com, by phone at (714) 994-6310, or in person at 14900 La Mirada Blvd., La Mirada, CA 90638; Tickets start at $19. Performances: September 16 – October 9, 2022. Thursdays at 7:30pm, Fridays at 8pm, Saturdays at 2pm & 8pm, Sundays at 1:30pm & 6:30pm. Running Time: 2 hours, 40 min.
Please Note: Contains mature humor, adult language, sexual situations, and innuendo. Post-Show Discussions with the cast will be Thursdays, Sept. 22 and Oct. 6, 2022.
Arts & Entertainment Reviewer
The Show Report
PHOTO CREDIT: Jason Niedle