by Lynn on April 4, 2010

in Archive,Picks & Pans

We know Mel Brooks as a multi-talented comic actor and the writer and director of such cult films as THE PRODUCERS, BLAZING SADDLES and YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN. Nine years ago he branched into musical theatre when he re-created THE PRODUCERS for Broadway with award winning results. He followed that with the musical of YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN for the Broadway stage. A touring production of YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN opened last night at the Princess of Wales Theatre, and our theatre critic, Lynn Slotkin, is here to tell us if the musical is a successful transition from the movie.

Hello Lynn. Refresh our memories, what is the story of YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN?

A pure Mel Brooks creation. It’s 1934. The infamous Dr. Victor Frankenstein has died in Transylvania. Infamous because his experiments involved grave robbing and bringing dead people back to life, who then terrorized the village.

His grandson, Dr. Frederick Frankenstein, who works on brains in New York, has no interest in his grandfather’s work. But the Young Dr. Frankenstein must go to Transylvania to settle the estate.

There he meets a hunchback with a roaming hump, a buxom lass who will volunteer as his assistant, and his grandfather’s dour housekeeper who was closer to his grandfather than he imagined. There also is Young Frankenstein’s society girlfriend who doesn’t like to be touched because it will muss her hair, makeup and nails.

Young Frankenstein finds his grandfather’s notes, becomes absorbed in them and decides to continue with his experiments. He creates a monster, a beefy guy with green skin, lots of scars and bolts and enormous monster boots.

So it follows the film pretty closely?

For the most part yes. Only now there are 19 songs dealing with everything from the brain, lonely hermits, and the housekeeper who yearns for her dead boyfriend.

It’s interesting to note that the film YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN was co-written by Mel Brooks in 1974. For YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN the musical, Mr. Brooks has co-written the book with Thomas Meehan. Brooks has also written the music and lyrics.

The Mel Brooks kind of humour, it’s there in all its broad, cheesy over-done glory. Brooks never met a joke he didn’t like enough to repeat four times. The show is full of sight-gags, double entendres, and heavy-handed business.

Tell us more about the production.

It certainly has that high energy level that was in the Broadway production. The sets are huge. The lighting is eye popping. But I found it over-microphoned without benefit of clarity.

Roger Bart who originated the role of YOUNG Dr. Frankenstein on Broadway, recreates his role here. He has charm, but he seems bored, and spends more time mugging and hamming it than giving a good performance. And his singing of THE BRAIN, is rushed and one doesn’t clearly hear the clever lyrics.

Also recreating his Broadway performance, is Shuler Hensley as THE MONSTER. The monster mainly grunts and Mr. Hensley does that well. But not only does he convey the scariness of the monster, but also his sweetness.

YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN is directed and choreographed by the hugely talented Susan Stroman. I got the feeling that with Mel Brooks around, he stifled her usual creativity.

His directorial input seems to be everywhere. But then we have the song PUTTIN’ ON THE RITZ, with a kickline of men, women, and the monster in top hat, tails and monster boots. It’s the best number in the show. Why? Because Irving Berlin wrote the music and lyrics which are wonderful, and not Mel Brooks—whose music and lyrics are forgettable. And here at least Stroman broke out with clever and witty choreography and staging. Such cleverness is too rare in this musical.

You don’t sound too happy with this production.

I ask, what’s the story, what was the creators’ intention and was it worth doing? I can appreciate Mr. Brooks brand of humour—broad and almost vaudeville. But was it worth doing? I think this kind of humour and overblown, relentless effort to make us laugh has had its day. His music and lyrics are not clever enough to stand the test of time. YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN is dated. There are many other more successful musicals that have lasted longer than this one.

Who would you recommend this for?

Obviously for Mel Brooks fans who like his broad humour and remember his films. Perhaps people who don’t go to the theatre often and want to see an old-fashioned, big Broadway musical. I would recommend it for them.

YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN plays at the Princess of Wales Theatre until April 18. The theatre is wheelchair accessible.