Updated: Jun 20, 2020
"Puttin’ the Trance Back in Transylvania!"
Mel Brooks’ classic “Young Frankenstein,” a monster hit from JD Theatricals @ The Attic about a brilliant American doctor who finds his heart (among other body parts) in Transylvania, comes to life on stage this month, playing from November 8th through the 24th in a 9-performance madcap musical that looks certain to have a stranglehold on its audiences.
Nominated for 3 Tony Awards, there’s no denying that this hopped-up stage version of Mr. Brooks’s movie by the same name — which features a book by Brooks and Thomas Meehan, and music and lyrics by Brooks — certainly has a high density of talent and staying power. It also surely has the hardest-working ensemble anywhere, featuring a top-flight cast at The Attic, showcasing every one of them with spotlight-worthy material.
Doing the heaviest lifting is Jaycob Hunter (a consummate pro with an elastic voice) as Dr. Frederick Frankenstein, the American heir to the infamous Transylvanian castle owned by the grave-robbing reanimator Dr. Victor von Frankenstein (Bob Fetes), whose experiments have terrorized Transylvania Heights in Europe for decades. Mr. Hunter’s Frederick is agile and endearing, with a song-and-dance man lurking beneath his white lab coat, but doesn't at first share his late grandfather’s conclusions about reanimated dead tissue. After stumbling into his grandfather’s lab one sleepless night, however, he encounters a rousing group of spirited ancestors in "Join the Family Business," and realizes he can no longer resist his birthright.
The 1974 film of “Young Frankenstein” is a genre pastiche of dark, vintage, Depression-era American monster movies, digging deep into the trove of Universal’s 1930s films based on Mary Shelley’s monster tale. Chief inspiration came from James Whale’s masterpieces, “Frankenstein,” and “Bride of Frankenstein,” and from Rowland V. Lee’s lesser 1939 sequel, “Son of Frankenstein.” Achieving a rare alchemy in its marriage of good-natured vulgarity and the sturdy plotting of Wilder’s screenplay, affectionately blurring the lines between spoof and homage, it's still considered one of the most outrageously funny films to date, right down to its giggly smuttiness.
Described fervently by Brooks as his best work, the film, presented in overblown burlesque revue-style, starred Gene Wilder, Marty Feldman, Cloris Leachman, Teri Garr, Peter Boyle, Kenneth Mars and the incomparable Madeline Kahn, all of whom created incisive comic characterizations on their own, but are even more deliriously funny as a team. Throw in Gene Hackman as the bumbling blind hermit and you’re in comedy heaven.
Here, under the direction of The Attic’s Kathy Paladino, an energetic confluence of key players click into place to support Mr. Hunter with blooming comic invention: David Rodriguez as the Goon-y lab assistant Igor, Mary Price Moore as onerous housekeeper Frau Blücher, Nicole Gerardi as the snooty Elizabeth, Brooke Lewis as buxom lab assistant Inga, Tyler Below as one-armed Inspector Hans Kemp, and Jim Huffman as the sensitive, sweetly doltish Monster. Also in a cameo scene, JD Rinde radiates as the blind hermit whose well-intended hospitality toward the Monster goes terribly awry.
Ably bolstered by Choreographer Maureen Russell and Music Director Erik Przytulski, this wacky comedy not only surprises but adds a substantial depth of mood. The palpable collegiality of a game cast tickling each other’s funny bones comes across in a catalog of irreverent stage and screen comedy styles, from vaudeville to the Marx Brothers to Chuck Jones to Monty Python. But although a riot, "Young Frankenstein" still pays homage to Mary Shelley's original novel — its horror, and its sadness. As such, the musical, in a way, transcends the parody form.
Jim Huffman’s Scenic Design deftly blends set pieces with an old stone block castle look and impressive structural elements, notably in the castle lab. The dark and stormy scenario is masterfully achieved, integrating Projections by Victoria Serra and John Espino to achieve depth. Kathy Paladino and Tyler Neal’s subtle Lighting Design casts a mock-sinister, sepulchral mood, and Susan Gerardi and Gordon Buckley bring their skillful style to Costumes and Wigs ranging from 1930’s all-the-rage society chic to patchwork monster duds with platform clodhoppers to the villagers’ ethnic garb. Make-up Design and Props are by Emily Lowe; Assistant Direction is by David Rodriguez.
The performances operate on a gag-by-gag basis, and faithfully re-creates whole swaths of the original, beat by beat. It's very hard not to nudge your seat mate with a here-comes-the-part-where-they-blah-blah-blah.
Amid the show’s sea of clever industry caricatures are Ms. Lewis, who is delicious as Dr. Frankenstein’s voluptuous young assistant, and who uses yodeling as foreplay. Ms. Moore, an inspired comedian at heart, makes the role of Frau Blücher, the eccentric sinister housekeeper, all her own through artful exaggeration. And Jim Huffman is beyond terrific, turning Frankenstein’s monster into the most heart-warming human character onstage — a misunderstood savage just looking for a little love.
Each of the key characters gets a signature number or two, often by way of introduction. Mr. Hunter's Frederick is “There Is Nothing Like a Brain.” That nod to Rodgers & Hammerstein is echoed elsewhere by musical references to everyone from Kander & Ebb to Cole Porter to Boublil & Schonberg.
Brooks’ songs seem to be more funny and functional than musically indelible, but he’s a gifted parodist who knows his way around an unsubtle innuendo and a mischievous rhyme. Even at their most sophomoric, his lyrics raise a smile: “The Roqueforts are celebrated for their Roquefort cheese, the Rothschilds are famous for their wines, Hershey's have their choc'lates and the Liptons have their teas, but when it comes to making monsters, you can't beat the Frankensteins!"
Some of the more memorable numbers are “Roll in the Hay,” an invitation from comely lab assistant Inga (Ms. Lewis) during a hay wagon ride through the Transylvanian woods. Punctuated hilariously by her country-girl sex appeal and deadpan friskiness, Ms. Lewis makes this number an over-the-moon high point. Likewise is the sexually charged, Dietrich-style confessional “He Vas My Boyfriend,” delivered in appropriately hideous makeup while straddling a chair by Ms. Moore’s dourly imperious housekeeper, Frau Blücher. The sound of that name alone compels any surrounding horses to whinny in fear. Another is the blind hermit’s plea to God for some company, which gives rise to the absurdly plaintive “Please Send Me Someone,” with Mr. Rinde nailing every flizzening laugh.
Ms. Gerardi as Frederick’s adorable madcap betrothed, Elizabeth, is a self-worshipping WASP tart, mixing an old Hollywood style with traces of Karen Walker-like fashions that mesh perfectly. She appears early with “Please Don’t Touch Me,” amusingly conveying her frigid feelings for Fred while clearly having serviced most of Park Avenue. She returns with two delicious numbers in Act Two: “Surprise,” in which the bombshell society girl arrives unexpectedly to find Frederick and Inga entwined behind the lab curtain; and “Deep Love,” in which some rough handling by the monster transforms Ms. Gerardi’s Elizabeth into a rhapsodic size queen with instant Elsa Lanchester gray shock streaks.
The real scene-stealer of the show, however, is Mr. Rodriquez’ hump-challenged henchman, Igor, who evokes old-time comedic giants like Jimmy Durante, Danny Kaye and of course the great Marty Feldman in “Together Again for the First Time,” a terrific revue-style buddy duet performed with Frederick. Mr. Rodriquez’ coy clowning and beatific, weird-eyed lunacy lifts each of his book scenes to substantial heights. So it’s not insignificant that one of the first act’s brightest moments is “Transylvania Mania,” Igor’s attempt to distract the villagers with an impromptu dance craze, performed with malleable comedic expression.
Mr. Below’s signature role of Inspector Kemp, the town constable, is a stroke of mechanical-armed genius; Ziggy is alternately played by Sean Farrell and Evan Onodera; Hilltop is Gordon Buckley; Werewolf is Emily Lowe; the ensemble included Bridget Rago, Cheryl Dekeyser, Cheyenne Brown, Evan Fredericks, Evan Onodera, Ian Klug and JD Rinde, Lori Lewis, Robin Beck, Sean Farrell and Seth Weiner. James Gomez is Dracula in a cameo appearance.
One of the truly exhilarating numbers comes when Dr. Frankenstein introduces his show-business-trained creature to the world by having him perform Irving Berlin’s tap extravaganza, “Puttin’ On the Ritz,” performed in full tux, enlivened by Mr. Huffman’s inarticulate scatting and wailing. Ms. Russell pulls out all the stops and the contents of her bag of dance tricks for this one, evoking a catalog of top-hat styles and Rockettes-style kick line. But what really makes it fly is Mr. Huffman’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.
Singling out this 1929 Irving Berlin song as the indisputable high point of “Young Frankenstein” might sound like a slap to the other numbers. But it’s entirely fitting that Mel Brooks — the most vaudevillian of contemporary American showmen, with his unabashed love of hoary humor and old-fashioned shtick — should find his greatest inspiration in a vintage source. The expansion of “Puttin’ on the Ritz” from a single-joke vignette in the 1974 film to an elaborate, full-cast showstopper in the musical is also the most dazzling example of brilliant craftsmanship in reanimating classic material with fresh musical life.
It's true, Mel Brooks’ "Young Frankenstein” is ripe with bawdy Catskills humor, but its gleeful raunchiness notwithstanding, it needs no apologies. Each indelible laugh follows in furious succession from the one before, and before you know it, you’re feeling empathy for these sprightly, animated characters. With that accomplished, Director Paladino and JD Theatricals @ Attic Theatre has succeeded in portraying a work of sublime pop art, an immortal comedy classic no doubt, resulting in a top notch production for their current season. It’s “a scientifically proven, monstrously good time at the theatre!”
“Young Frankenstein” plays through November 24th at the Attic, 2834 S Fairview St, Santa Ana. For tickets and reservations, go to https://attictheater.weebly.com/
The Show Report