A funny thing happened on the way to Broadway. Actually, not so funny. When it tried out in Seattle over summer, Mel Brooks’ “Young Frankenstein” had most of the elements in place to suggest a winning new monster musical was percolating in the lab. All it required was tightening and a little work to nurture its own personality, instead of just replicating the gags of Brooks’ 1974 film. Well, the editing has been minimal and the development even less. If the robust advance — reportedly north of $30 million — is any indication, audiences hungry for a big, splashy comedy might not care. But a show that could have been a blast ends up being just good enough.
While that limitation seems destined to engender little admiration in the theater community, it’s unlikely to deter the tourist traffic vital to keep an expensive production like this afloat on Broadway.
But lightning hasn’t struck twice. When Brooks’ “The Producers” opened in 2001, it brought a shot of adrenaline to the Rialto and a self-satirizing irreverence (subsequently much-imitated) to the musical comedy, crowning Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick as bona fide stage royalty.
“Young Frankenstein” has no shortage of chuckles, a stellar cast and generous production values (full appreciation of which can be found in Variety‘s Seattle review of Aug. 24). But it’s a far more mechanical creation, with little of the heart or liberating belly laughs of its predecessor.
Director-choreographer Susan Stroman has crafted zesty numbers in the monster mash “Transylvania Mania” and Irving Berlin’s “Puttin’ on the Ritz,” expanded from the film. But nothing here even comes close to the outrageousness of her “Producers” coups of toe-tapping grannies with walkers or showgirls with wiener headdresses in “Springtime for Hitler.”
Comparison is unfair but inevitable. The now almost-unwatchable 1968 film of “The Producers” was not just transferred but completely rethought for the stage, acquiring a superior life of its own.
The 1974 “Young Frankenstein” film holds up as a gem distinguished by brilliant comic characterizations and a loving homage to Universal’s 1930s horror classics. But it’s been not so much reimagined as regurgitated, its inspired, throwaway gags ballooned into belabored Borscht Belt shtick or inflated production numbers. The show has no connection with its original satirical target, only with the film, so its humor becomes secondhand. It also frequently spills over from cheeky vulgarity into puerile crudeness.
In Seattle, it seemed that further polishing might at least camouflage these shortcomings. But Broadway provides a more unforgiving spotlight. That’s particularly the case in the Hilton Theater, an intimacy-deprived barn in which it’s hard to play anything, let alone comedy. Not helped by an assaultive but unclear sound mix, the cast works hard but gets a little lost onstage, and many of the jokes along with them.
That’s unfortunate, given the wealth of seasoned Broadway talent assembled. Standouts are the indispensable Andrea Martin as sinister haushag Frau Blucher and Christopher Fitzgerald as hunchback Igor. Fitzgerald does the impossible by claiming a role forged by Marty Feldman as his own inexhaustibly vaudevillian comic creation.
Sutton Foster has blossomed since Seattle as lusty lab assistant Inga. Her Central European accent comes and goes, but she has a daffy sexiness that’s nicely understated, and her hilariously staged “Roll in the Hay” number with yodeling chorus is a high point among Brooks and Thomas Meehan’s often interchangeable songs.
Megan Mullally has an unenviable job competing with the sublime Madeline Kahn’s memory as Frederick Frankenstein’s well-heeled fiancee Elizabeth. But she plays the lockjaw society floozy with an amusing mix of self-love and slutty depravity.
Shuler Hensley is underused but gets to show off some fine silent-comedy skills as the fearsome Monster who just wants to be loved, while Fred Applegate does droll double duty as wooden-armed Inspector Kemp and, in one of the more successfully translated film vignettes, the Blind Hermit.
But unlike “The Producers,” which had two definite protagonists in Max and Leo and a well-defined plot, “Young Frankenstein” is a gallery of caricatures that was always more about send-up than story. That places undue weight on Roger Bart’s half-crazed scientist Frederick, called upon by default to carry the show.
Bart is a skilled musical comedy performer, and he’s always fun to watch. And despite much-publicized recent back problems that caused Bart to miss a stretch of performances in the run-up to opening, his manic comic energy and commitment never falter. But the conception of this key role may be one of the show’s weaknesses.
There was a softness to Gene Wilder’s lunacy onscreen that’s missing here, and while Bart can be priceless playing clowns or villains, this is not the best showcase for his performance style. Brooks and Stroman lean heavily on him to keep the motor running, which he does. But the writers give him nothing to play that might have anchored the material and made Frederick’s reluctant embrace of his family legacy a real transformation instead of just another in a string of jokes.
The show’s problems are not entirely confined to the stage. Even before it started previewing in town, Brooks’ behemoth has attracted such persistent ill will from the New York legit community it makes the habitual sniping from pundits about Disney Theatrical ventures seem like a welcome mat.
How the team behind Tony magnet “The Producers” went from toast to supposed scourge of the town is a case study in hubris on the part of Brooks and producing partner Robert F.X. Sillerman.
First black mark came with the early decision — after committing to play former “Producers” home the St. James Theater — to move the show into the considerably larger and little-loved Hilton. Next was the announcement of $450 premium seats (most folks might have waited for hit status before introducing such a lofty ducat). Then came the refusal to reveal grosses, the reporting of which is standard industry practice.
A curtain-call lyric heralds a possible “Blazing Saddles” tuner next year, which seems a premature declaration from the creative team that this show is a smash and the public will be hollering for more. Maybe they’ll be right. Maybe not. Either way, the insider animosity adds a further sour taste to what’s likely to be fairly general disappointment in a once eagerly anticipated show.
Fans of the movie who know each scene by heart can be heard laughing and applauding the setups for the jokes, making the payoff almost redundant. That factor hasn’t hurt “Monty Python’s Spamalot.” But if musical-makers are going to continue to mine movies as source material for anything beyond theme-park jollies, reinvention, not just reproduction, has to figure in the formula.