15 October 2007 (Mon), Broadway
Mel Brooks’ latest ripoff of one of his old shows. It’s still in previews after a fairly successful Seattle run, and expectations and advance sales are exceedingly high. Tickets are apparently a pretty tight commodity even in previews, and I was lucky enough to be invited by a friend. I would normally have seen the movie again first, not having seen it since its original run in the 70s. But I hadn’t even realized the show was in town already, so it was going to have to be a surprise.
The story, such as there is, begins in Transylvania. The people are rejoicing because the son of Dr Frankenstein has died, which they believe will finally lift the curse on their town. But their joy is short lived as they learn that there is a grandson living in the U.S. The grandson, however, now a university professor of science, has no interest in carrying on the family business. Leaving his fiancée behind, he goes to Transylvania to collect his inheritance. There he meets Igor, the grandson of the original doctor’s assistant; a voluptuous blonde who serves as his assistant; the mysterious matron of the castle, who turns out to have been the original doctor’s lover; and a host of others. He decides to recreate his father’s experiment and build a new monster. The shenanigans surrounding that event define the rest of the show.
The show was fun without delivering a knockout punch. The inevitable question on everyone’s lips is: Is this another Producers? The answer is: not even close. For one thing, it’s too episodic to match the driving thrust of its predecessor. In the latter, everything was barreling forward towards the “Springtime For Hitler” sequence, and each scene led organically into the next. Even with all the crazy characters and situations appearing throughout, the build-up was logical and easy to follow. Then, after lifting our expectations throughout the show, they fully deliver when the number finally appears, and that sequence itself tops itself brilliantly with bit after bit to the very end. Above that, after that climactic number, they managed to maintain the pace towards an even better ending than the movie. It was a great adaptation from film to stage – jettisoning unnecessary characters, shifting the time period to an earlier era, combining or reworking scenes or simply inventing new ones. The result was a fully formed stage musical, and audiences didn’t have to know the movie to enjoy it. Nothing seemed superfluous.
In contrast, Young Frankenstein seemed to be trying too hard. There were lots of genuinely funny bits, such as the hilarious meeting between the monster and a hermit, and the production values were fine. But Mel Brooks seemed to be stretching at some points, with a number of scenes and especially songs carrying on longer than they should. As much as I hate to compare it with The Producers, it practically asks for it with a number of unflattering similarities: the opening number with the crowd outside a castle/theatre, the sexy blonde with an accent, the “Walk this way” joke (was that deliberate?), the dream number, the big musical-within-a-musical production number and so forth. It played like a riff on an old formula rather than starting anew. The story did not have the same sense of inevitability, and some of the scenes came off more as schtick than story. The popularity of the movie might have worked against the creators. For example, in the introduction of the professor and his fiancée, the shift from Transylvania to the U.S. and then back to Transylvania seemed clumsy. I assume that’s how it was set up in the movie, but it just doesn’t work well on stage. They might have been bolder with the adaptation. As with Spamalot (so I hear), certain moments were apparently too famous to cut, which may have dictated lines or entire scenes that might better have been lost.
A more fundamental trouble is that the lead character is not written or presented in a way that is strong enough to dominate; he’s often overwhelmed by the other quirky characters on display. This has nothing to do with Roger Bart, who was terrific as the lead. It’s just that the doctor role itself seems more reactor than actor, without a defining character trait that moves the action forward. It’s as if Leo Bloom (the Matthew Broderick part) were the lead in The Producers. Without that solid core, the show goes adrift. As it stands now, it’s a collection of funny sequences rather than an integrated show.
But the show’s biggest problem was the songs. Mel Brooks was definitely on cruise mode here. Musically the songs were very weak. He showed such a good sense of melody in The Producers in numbers like “That Face” and “Till Him”, but that sense was not on evidence here. The melodies were pretty much all generic tunes taken from a tin can (or tin ear). That becomes acutely clear with “Putting On The Ritz”, which unquestionably towers above everything musically. Lyrically there were funny moments rather than funny songs. Two of the early numbers, the doctor’s ode to the brain and the fiancée’s song, made me wonder what Cole Porter would have made of them. They were clever ideas that seemed only half thought out. All in all, there were just too many songs in the show, many (actually most) of which went on too long. Did they really have to musicalize everything?? Some pruning would help immeasurably. I do remember enjoying the wacky “Hay Ride” number, including some great use of video and fun direction. If all the songs and scenes measured to that level, the musical would have been a smash.
The problems were evident even in the “Putting On The Ritz” number. The monster’s opening line was one of the most hilarious moments I’ve experienced in a musical – but the joke was essentially over after the first refrain. (And that joke itself depends on a knowledge of the song to some extent, since you have to be expecting the title line to be surprised. I wonder if it would work otherwise.) There was some energetic dancing afterwards, which seemed more like a potpourri than a sustained idea. Basically the point had already been made. Like other numbers, it was great fun at first but went on beyond its sell date.
The actors were all wonderful, down to the tiniest roles. Roger Bart is a very funny guy, and I only wished that his part was more strongly written. Still, he made the most of what he had. The real star performance of the night was Andrea Martin, who managed to wring a laugh out of every line and every number. She even made the weak “I Vas His Girlfriend” sound good. Her presence lifted every scene she was in. This has Tony Award written all over it. Sutton Foster, who I wouldn’t immediately associate with a sexy role, was better than I had expected as the blonde, and the Will and Grace woman proved an adept stage actress, again working against an underwritten role. Igor was also memorable. Even Shuler Hensley was fun as the monster; I wish he had more songs to sing, but he was pretty near perfect with what he had. Acting-wise, I couldn’t have asked for more.
Then there was Susan Stroman. She is definitely a great choreographer, but I get the feeling that she’s beginning to repeat herself. Among other examples, the dream sequence, where people emerged suddenly from the rafters, recalled “I Want To Be a Producer” (and the opening number in Crazy For You, for that matter), and the left-right tapping of the canes in “Putting On The Ritz” was in the jail scene in The Producers. Having a signature style is one thing, but recycling the exact same moves is something else. Most of the dances were perfectly fine, but there was no real oomph factor. If there is a Stroman compilation musical some day along the lines of Fosse, I doubt anything from this show will be in it.
Would I see this show again? Yes, if I don’t have to pay for it and if there’s nothing else on. I’d love especially to see this cast once more. And I might have been a victim of my own excessive expectations, so another look might not be a bad idea. Would I recommend it to others? Maybe. There are enough laughs to make it worthwhile, and most people aren’t as critical as I am. Like Spamalot, it might be more interesting for fans of the movie. I suspect that the critics, though, aren’t going to take to this wholeheartedly. Aside from some irritating moves by the producers which endeared the show to no one, such as announcing eye-popping prices for premium seats and refusing to publish their weekly earnings like everyone else, the show dares you to compare it to The Producers. And, as fun as it is in parts, it does not come out on top.