By the ominous sound of the continuously playing organ in the background and the silhouetted look of the Frankenstein castle positioned in the distance against a mysterious night sky, draped in atmospheric purple, you’d swear Halloween had come early to the stage of Arizona Broadway Theatre.
The musical comedy Young Frankenstein – its full title is actually The New Mel Brooks Musical Young Frankenstein – opened its castle doors this weekend at ABT and it’s a hoot. Like the Mel Brooks 1974 movie upon which it is based, the musical has its roots in three classic Universal Pictures films of the thirties, Frankenstein, Bride of Frankenstein and Son of Frankenstein, though, in truth, its existence owes more to the success of the musical version of The Producers than anything else.
It’s because of the incredible success of The Producers that Mel Brooks mined his own catalog and created a second musical, though in many respects it’s also the popularity of his 2001 hit that actually worked against Young Frankenstein. Comparisons on Broadway were all but inevitable, and the overall consensus was that while Young Frankenstein was fun, it wasn’t as good. That was in 2007. In 2014 things are different. The shadow of The Producers may still linger somewhat, but the habit of comparing the two has diminished with time; today, it is much easier to enjoy Young Frankenstein on its own terms, which is as it should be.
The musical is a virtual retread of Brooks’ ’74 movie parody with one huge exception; the film affectionately saluted and recreated the style of those classic black and white movie horrors, but the musical can’t. Instead, it retrieves the source material and turns it into a large scale, colorful production where each scene takes on the form of a complete burlesque revue. In fact, the whole show is really a series of music hall/burlesque sketches pieced together to form the arc of a story, and like a burlesque revue there are good laughs, groaners, large scale production numbers and a fair share of naughty smut.
The story is basic. In 1934, the villagers of Transylvania Heights celebrate the death of Dr. Victor von Frankenstein, the nutty scientist who experimented with corpses, but their celebrations are diminished with the news that there’s another member of the family still alive, a young Frederick Frankenstein, ready to pack his bags in New York, sail across to central Europe and inherit the castle.
Because of its burlesque roots, everything in Young Frankenstein is played broadly. Even though characters are talking to each other they aim most of their looks and dialog directly at us, constantly bringing the audience in on the joke, and when they sing and dance, the performance is always a showstopper, the kind you present at the foot of the stage in front of the curtains. The songs aren’t great, at least, not the melodies, but the lyrics are often hilarious. Only Mel Brooks could incorporate the phrase, “Your genitalia has been known to fail ya,” and set it to toe-tapping music. Ironically, the one standout production number is not a Brooks original but Irving Berlin’s 1929 Puttin’ On The Ritz.
Many of those who work behind the scenes of ABT have this time around stepped forward and taken to the stage, and they have fun with everything. In a production like this it’s impossible to overdo it – you need to be over-the-top – and ABT’s cast play it to the hilt. Behind a thick mustache and under a curly wig, an unrecognizable Kurtis W. Overby plays Frederick and cries “It’s alive!” with all the relish he can muster. Keeping with the tradition of the Broadway production, Kurtis is less Gene Wilder who originated the movie role and more Broadway’s Roger Bart. Brad York hams it to the extreme as Igor, while Cassandra Norville Klaphake as Elizabeth takes charge every time she enters.
There’s also good support from Kathi Osborne, again almost unrecognizable as Frau Blucher, Adam Vargas as The Monster, and Brad Rupp as Inspector Hans Kemp, but its Becca Gottlieb as Inga who practically steals the show. Her way of yodeling as a form of foreplay, plus her song Roll in the Hay performed on the back of a wagon are both so infectious and cheerfully vulgar, who wouldn’t fall for her? She’s Heidi as a lusty, busty wench who declares “Woof!” at the thought of the Monster’s oversized appendage.
Many of the jokes are lifted directly from the film and as a consequence, not all of them work. The joke about Igor’s hump changing position is flat, plus Kemp’s arm and a leg reference is such a groaner you’re not quite sure whether you should laugh or not. But despite faults with its source material, as usual with ABT, it’s what the theatre does with it that matters, and production values are high. The set design is a constant surprise. Frankenstein’s laboratory is quite magnificent, and Morgan Andersen’s colorful costumes are just right. Director and choreographer Tralen Doler milks each song and dance number for all they’re worth.
During Saturday night’s performance, what appeared to be missing spotlight cues subdued the impact of the show’s best production number, Puttin’ on the Ritz, plus a mic problem with Cassandra’s Elizabeth diminished one of the character’s best off-stage jokes as she bursts into a chorus of Ah, Sweet Mystery of Life in the wings, stage left; most of the audience couldn’t hear it. But both issues are technical, and as always with a live show, such issues are easy to rectify on subsequent performances.
To complete the fun of the evening, order a glass of the special concoction, The Monster. With a mixture of vodka, gin and rum, not to mention that Gothic organ, Frankenstein’s castle and the purple backdrop, you’ll be set for the evening. Halloween really has come early and at ABT it’s so much more fun than trick or treat.
For more information regarding times, dates and tickets CLICK HERE for the ABT website.