The Producers is Mel Brooks’s crowning statement both on film and on stage, in part because its plot allows Brooks to explicitly make the central thesis of his career: audiences love to be offended. In theater as in self-defense, Brooks’s credo has it, your safest bet is to aim low. This vaudevillian shamelessness is both the best and the worst thing about Brooks’s 2007 musical adaptation of his 1974 movie Young Frankenstein, the touring production of which is now in weeklong residence at the Orpheum Theatre.
Brooks personally wrote the production’s music and lyrics; they’re not stunning, but they’re not meant to be. All a Brooks melody needs to do is to signal the type of song it’s making fun of (ballad? back-story exposition number? climactic show-stopper?), and Brooks has a gift for abstracting standard song forms into generically listenable likenesses. Thomas Meehan and Brooks adapted the script from the screenplay Brooks originally wrote with Gene Wilder; Brooks and Meehan preserve all the most memorable moments, which the Tuesday night audience at the Orpheum audibly anticipated and cheered the arrival of.
The story involves Victor Frankenstein’s grandson Frederick (Roger Bart), who in 1934 is called to Transylvania to settle his recently deceased grandfather’s estate and soon finds himself involved in the family business—enticed by the hunchback Igor (Cory English), Victor’s girlfriend Frau Blucher (Joanna Glushak), and the buxom newly-hired lab assistant Inga (Anne Horak). Frederick soon finds himself facing some of the same problems his grandfather had (a rampaging monster, angry villagers) while also dealing with a surprise visit from his own jealous fianceé Elizabeth (Beth Curry).
The film’s winkingly lowbrow humor would seem to be tailormade for the Broadway stage, but the problem is that the original film was already stretching a clever but simple premise to the breaking point, earning the status of a classic due to Brooks’s manic inventiveness and the brilliance of Gene Wilder in the title role. Subtracting Wilder and inflating the show with music has a diluting effect, though Bart—who originated the Wilder role on Broadway—is charming and confidently understated.
|young frankenstein, playing through february 14 at the orpheum theatre. for tickets ($28-$78) and information, see hennepintheatretrust.org.|
The show takes a while to get going: director Susan Stroman does what she can to keep the pace up, but by the time the monster is animated near the end of the first act, we’ve taken time to hear Frederick sing the praises of the brain, for ghosts of Frankensteins past to urge Frederick to “Join the Family Business,” and for the villagers to sing (multiple times) about their understandable distaste for Frankensteins. The presence of the monster (Shuler Hensley) lifts the energy level considerably in the fleet and entertaining second act.
What I found myself wishing, again and again, was that Young Frankenstein would be, instead of a big Broadway blowout, a low-budget show at the Fringe. It’s not that big productions are inherently unfunny, but as in a show of any size, all production elements should serve the show’s purposes. If they’re not helping, they’re hurting. The parts of Young Frankenstein that work by far the best are the simplest: the easy camaraderie between Bart and English, the escalating ribaldery of “A Roll in the Hay” and “Deep Love”—performed by the very game Horak and Curry, respectively—and a couple of incredibly basic “special effects.” The Tuesday night audience clapped politely for a 20-foot monster puppet, but when a few guys sat on other performers so they could “dance” with legs that weren’t their own—a cute trick you might see at a fifth-grade talent show—the audience positively gasped with delight.
There are a lot of penis jokes in Young Frankenstein, and sure, some of them are funny—but honestly, I laughed a lot harder at the danger-zone jokes in writer Corrie Zoll’s Beaverdance at Bedlam in December. Maybe Zoll’s better than Brooks at coming up with amusing genitalia-themed double entendres, maybe vaginas are just funnier than penises at this particular point in history, or maybe supersizing a production makes it harder for simple offhand gags to register. Unless Beaverdance hits Broadway we’ll never know, but for now, Brooks and his producers have a lot of people paying $28-$78 for a decent show that would actually be more entertaining as a $15 production at the BLB. Max Bialystock would be proud.