Singling out a 1929 Irving Berlin song as the indisputable high point of “Young Frankenstein” might sound like a slap to the original numbers. But it’s entirely fitting that Mel Brooks — the most vaudevillian of contemporary American showmen, with his unabashed love of hoary humor and old-fashioned shtick — should find his greatest inspiration in a vintage source. The expansion of “Puttin’ on the Ritz” from a single-joke vignette in the 1974 film to an elaborate, full-cast showstopper is also the most dazzling example of Brooks & Co.’s craftsmanship in reanimating pre-existing material with fresh musical life.
What the show needs is more of that freewheeling spirit of reinvention. But while it’s freighted with unrealistic expectations in the wake of “The Producers,” this monster nonetheless looks certain to place a stranglehold on Broadway.
Does the second collaboration between Brooks, co-author Thomas Meehan and director-choreographer Susan Stroman measure up to the 2001 tuner that netted them 12 Tonys and a chapter in the Broadway history books? How could it? “Producers” provided a jolt of gleeful irreverence to a Broadway climate that was starved for unbridled hilarity, opening the doors to a new age of self-aware irony in American musicals.
“Young Frankenstein” doesn’t scale the same dizzying comic heights, but it is a big, boisterous entertainment stuffed with laughs and spectacle. Like the eponymous monster brought winningly to life here by Shuler Hensley, the show walks, talks, sings, dances and charms in the Seattle tryout, which precedes its Nov. 8 Broadway opening. But at 2¾ hours, it needs to step out from its maker’s shadow, receive a couple more volts of electricity and go on a diet before hitting New York.
The film, arguably the sharpest of Brooks’ movies, achieved a rare alchemy in its marriage of the director’s good-natured vulgarity and broad-humor gags with the sturdy plotting of Gene Wilder’s screenplay. It affectionately blurred the lines between spoof and homage, digging deep into the trove of Universal’s 1930s films based on Mary Shelley’s monster tale. Chief inspiration came from James Whale’s masterpieces “Frankenstein” and “Bride of Frankenstein” and from Rowland V. Lee’s lesser 1939 sequel, “Son of Frankenstein.”
The enduring status of “Young Frankenstein,” however, is sealed less by its writing or its witty B&W evocation of the earlier films’ gloomy atmosphere and Gothic sets than by its brilliant cast. Wilder, Marty Feldman, Cloris Leachman, Teri Garr, Peter Boyle, Kenneth Mars and the incomparable Madeline Kahn created incisive comic characterizations that would have been memorable on their own but were deliriously funny as a team. Throw in Gene Hackman as a bumbling blind hermit and you’re in comedy heaven.
“Young Frankenstein” is very much an ensemble vehicle, unlike “The Producers,” which was largely a two-man circus that never quite sustained its initial zing once original star duo Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick moved on.
The distinction between the two properties brings benefits (in terms of spreading the mirth) but also a challenge (thinning the focus and muffling the heart). However, the creators have trawled the Broadway talent pool to assemble a top-flight cast, showcasing every one of them with spotlight-worthy material.
Doing the heaviest lifting is Roger Bart, upgraded from supporting player in “Producers” to step into Wilder’s shoes as Frederick Frankenstein, the American heir to a Transylvanian castle, who scoffs at his delusional late grandfather’s experiments with dead tissue in favor of more orthodox scientific pursuits.
Bart molds faithfully from the clay of Wilder’s characterization while bringing sure comic footing and cranky Jerry Lewis-style vocal mannerisms to his own droll spin on the reluctant reanimator. Even at his most vain and self-serious, his Frederick never seems far from the crazed scientist, wrestling with an inner eccentric he can barely contain.
Each of the key characters gets a signature number or two, often by way of introduction. Frederick’s is “There Is Nothing Like a Brain.” That nod to Rodgers & Hammerstein is echoed elsewhere by musical references to everyone from Kander & Ebb to Cole Porter to Boublil & Schonberg.
Like his tunes for “Producers,” Brooks’ songs here are more funny and functional than musically indelible, but he’s a gifted parodist who knows his way around an unsubtle innuendo (the T&A jokes are tireless) and a mischievous rhyme. Even at their most sophomoric, his lyrics raise a smile: “Though your genitalia has been known to fail ya, you can bet your ass on the brain.”
Some songs are fashioned directly from laugh lines in the screenplay, like “Roll in the Hay,” an invitation from comely lab assistant Inga (Sutton Foster) during a wagon ride through the Transylvanian woods, punctuated hilariously by her yodeling. Likewise is the sexually charged, Dietrich-style confessional “He Vas My Boyfriend,” delivered while straddling a chair by Andrea Martin’s dourly imperious housekeeper, Frau Blucher.
The blind hermit’s plea to God for some company gives rise to the absurdly plaintive “Please Send Me Someone,” with Fred Applegate nailing every laugh. (He does double duty as the wooden-limbed Inspector Kemp.)
Megan Mullally as Frederick’s “adorable madcap fiancee,” Elizabeth, is a self-worshipping WASP tart, mixing old Hollywood with traces of Karen Walker that fit just fine. She appears early with “Please Don’t Touch Me,” amusingly conveying her frigid feelings for Fred while clearly having serviced most of Park Avenue.
Mullally returns with two delicious numbers in act two: “Surprise,” in which she arrives unexpectedly to find Frederick and Inga entwined on the lab slab; and “Deep Love,” in which some rough handling by the monster transforms her into a rhapsodic size queen with instant Elsa Lanchester gray shock streaks.
Foster is strangely low-key for much of the show and gets the weakest number in “Listen to Your Heart,” but the principals all manage to add a few engaging wrinkles to previously etched characters.
The scene-stealer is Christopher Fitzgerald’s hunchback henchman, Igor, who evokes Jimmy Durante, Donald O’Connor and countless others in “Together Again for the First Time,” a terrific revue-style buddy duet performed with Bart. Fitzgerald’s coy clowning and bug-eyed lunacy lift even some of the more sluggish book scenes.
Those longueurs are a factor especially in act one, which has a heap of plot and character presentations to trudge through: At 90 minutes, it drags. Given all that expository duty, trimming is a challenge (though a laborious soap/cheese gag is an obvious candidate for excision) but overall tightening of songs, dialogue and transitions is needed.
Brooks and Meehan’s book sticks too slavishly to the screenplay and the cast is encouraged inordinately to milk jokes that fans of the movie know by heart. Consequently, it seems a little deficient in fresh comic angles despite the actors’ resourceful work.
It’s not insignificant that the first act’s brightest moments are departures from the film: “Join the Family Business,” in which the ghost of Frederick’s grandfather and other forbears assemble a giant monster; and “Transylvania Mania,” Igor’s attempt to distract the villagers with an impromptu dance craze.
That buoyant act-one closer shows Stroman’s choreography at its eclectic best, cleverly sampling a range of styles as she marshals the ensemble to seemingly endless variations on the central monster-walk theme. The musical’s other dance peak comes midway in act two with the tap extravaganza of “Puttin’ on the Ritz,” enlivened by Hensley’s inarticulate scatting. (The actor delights when melting to reveal the soft cry-baby beneath the hulking brute.)
The show lacks a socko closing number to rival either of those son
gs, and while the conclusion (which again departs from the film) is satisfying, it could benefit from a further polish.
Along with the music team of Glen Kelly, Patrick S. Brady and Doug Besterman, who give ripe body to both the songs and the flavorful incidental score, Brooks has reassembled many of his key craft collaborators from “The Producers.” Robin Wagner’s sets deftly blend projections with old-style backcloths and impressive structural elements, notably in the castle lab.
Peter Kaczorowski’s masterful lighting casts a mock-sinister, sepulchral mood, enhanced by f/x chief Marc Brickman’s atmospheric charges. And William Ivey Long brings his impeccable style to costumes ranging from Mullally’s ‘30s society chic to Hensley’s patchwork monster duds and platform clodhoppers to the villagers’ ethnic garb.
There’s definitely room for fine-tuning to help Brooks’ monster find its own feet rather than spending so much time channeling the movie. But the elements are mostly there, meaning it’s more a matter of cosmetic lab work than a return to the brain depository.