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Review: 'Young Frankenstein' at the Winspear

by Jerome Weeks 5 Jan 2011 4:19 PM

Mel Brooks has always been about going for the big, outrageous laugh. So what can a Broadway musical adaptation do to make us forget Gene Wilder and Peter Boyle hoofing it as doctor and monster? Jerome Weeks reviews.


There are at least two things that a musical adaptation of Mel Brook’s 1974 movie, Young Frankenstein needs to match or even top, if it’s going to make it worth it, sitting through all the familiar guffaws and groaners again (“Werewolf?” “There a wolf.”).

Yes, it’d be good if the show had some of Gene Wilder’s sweetness-turning-into-mania, playing the young Doctor Frankenstein, who tries to avoid his grandfather’s grave-robbing infamy even as he’s drawn into “the family business” of monster manufacture. And it’s certainly hard, while watching a new version, to forget some of the other members of Brooks’ comic ensemble, notably Marty Feldman as a goggle-eyed Igor (“What hump?) and Kenneth Mars as the one-legged, one-armed, one-eyed Inspector Kemp. Brooks’ eager buffoonery, his goosey-irreverent send-up of horror movies is lent a scene-stealing dementia by this crew, even as the film was given an authentic black-and-white look in its cinematography and set design. So the musical must adapt an homage and a travesty.

Fine. But for my money, the two things that need to wow us, to make this lumpy beast crackle with anything like theatrical life, are 1) the stand-in for Madeline Kahn, who played the doctor’s impossible fiancee with Kahn’s characteristically over-the-top ferocity and comic coyness, segueing in a single breath from intimate, cooing flirtation to operatic roars and 2), of course, “Puttin’ on the Ritz,” the show’s high point, the lumbering-monster dance number that gave new meaning to the term “soft shoe.”

On that score at least, the Broadway tour of Young Frankenstein currently at the Winspear Opera House, succeeds. At first, Janine Divita — as Elizabeth, the fiancee — seems just talented and game. In her number, “Please Don’t Touch Me” (“Not on the lips!”), she offers a jaw-jutting approximation of Kahn’s ability to seem both icy-porcelain and sexy-pouty. But towards the end, after the monster’s sizable, ah, talents have released Elizabeth sexually, Divita truly unleashes her voice and her full-on commitment to being utterly silly. The song “Deep Love” combines Divita’s delighted, bravura singing with Brooks’ trademark stupid entendres — double entendres too childishly obvious to be witty, which Brooks keeps determinedly piling on anyway until they’re funny despite themselves.  He’s a  pouty-mouthed infant impishly shouting out dirty words to see what happy mayhem (and attention) he’ll spark.

As for the rest of the cast here: The long and lean Christopher Ryan makes for a sharp-seeming doctor; he has to work at not coming across as a wiseacre or smoothie, much less the blue-eyed naif that Wilder was. Cory English has the Igor/Eyegor mugging down pat, as does Joanna Glushak as Frau Blucher, and while Preston Truman Boyd doesn’t have Peter Boyle’s burly sense of threat, he does give a pained sweetness to his monster.

But in Laughter on the 23rd Floor, Neil Simon’s nostalgic comedy about the days he, Brooks and Woody Allen wrote for Sid Caesar’s Your Show of Shows, he has the Mel Brooks character dismiss his fellow comic writers as small-timers. They get lots of little laughs. He always goes for the big belly laugh.

Which actually has been a chief problem with the Brooks musicals, The Producers and Young Frankenstein. They’re always hammering us with Big Laughs and Big Songs and not much else. There are very few quiet moments, no emotional change-ups or aesthetic ambivalence, no subtlety (it’s Mel Brooks, you’re expecting something wistful maybe?). True, Brooks goes straight for the sexual fears and fantasies embedded in the original Frankenstein, Bride of Frankenstein and Son of Frankenstein films (see David Skal’s entertaining history, The Monster Show). But he does so by going on with the same adolescent breast and penis jokes (sometimes elaborated by cartoon Yiddish). By Act 2, you may feel somewhat bruised around the ribs, beaten by shticks.

It’s the musical comedy as musical burlesque — and one with the cymbal crashes played at top volume so we won’t miss the jokes. Every song calls for a chorus extravaganza or a belt-it-out-to-the-balcony showstoppper — even as the songs themselves rarely merit this treatment. They’re rarely memorable for their music, and when they are memorable, it’s mostly for harking back to other songs.  Brooks is simply not much of a composer — all puff and gesture and echo.

But there is one point in the film when everything Brooksian — the vulgarities, the irreverence, the ham-handedness, the loving-but-madcap thefts from classic musicals — everything came together into something original and demented: Frankenstein’s monster trying to sing and dance in top hat and tails to Irving Berlin.  Intentionally or not, the “Puttin’ on the Ritz” sequence — when Dr. Frankenstein sets out to prove the monster is teachable and harmless — the entire sequence sends up a large part of Mary Shelley’s original novel, a large part that has rarely appeared in screen versions. The monster himself attempts to become more civilized and educated — even as his efforts are cruelly frustrated by ‘normal’ humans. With Shelley, he learns to read Milton. With Brooks, he tries to be Fred Astaire. And the movie (and the musical) seems to rise to some heavenly level of absurdity.

Ever since Crazy for You, director-choreographer Susan Stroman has been known for her clever use of props and tricks in her dance sequences, and for “Ritz,” she’s saved a couple doozies,  including leaping strobe-light effects and a wonderful “me and my shadow” routine.  (Earlier, she has a dream sequence with a giant, puppet monster who’s assembled onstage from parts.) It may seem like gimmicks on top of gimmicks but given the over-the-top Brooksian methodology of the show in general (and the need, as I mentioned, to out-do the cinematic original), this wild crescendo just feels like the perfect capper to what’s been happening. It makes sitting through the winking and yelling and leg-pulling worth it.

Hey, better this “Ritz” than a fizzle.