A musical that died prematurely on Broadway may still end up with its producers exclaiming, "It's alive!"
It usually bodes well for touring shows when audiences recognize many of the lines — and gags — before they’re even spoken by the actors onstage. Such is the case with Mel Brooks’ musical adaptation of his 1974 film “Young Frankenstein,” which could turn out to be a kind of “Rocky Horror Show” for the subscription-audience generation. In the second stop of its national tour this week in Hartford, Conn., the tuner’s solid production values, original cast members Roger Bart in the title role and Shuler Hensley as his creation, plus a go-for-Brooks drive supply high-octane fuel for the road.
Audience affection for the film, its escapist comedy and the tuner’s eager-to-please-at-any-cost sensibility could be welcome in laugh-deficit times. As the show rolls out across the provinces, a musical that died prematurely on Broadway may still end up with its producers exclaiming, “It’s alive!”
And lively — with an energetic ensemble, some comically charged dance numbers and one jokey, easygoing song after another, this production has enough voltage to light up downtown Transylvania. The musical adaptation should please fans of the original film, a substantial core base that must be served — but often at the expense of material that could have been something more.
Many of the new songs spring from already familiar lines of dialogue: “Please Don’t Touch Me” for finicky fiancee Elizabeth (Beth Curry); the yodel-heavy “Roll in the Hay” for lusty local Inga (Anne Horak); and “He Vas My Boyfriend” for housekeeper Frau Blucher (played with hysterical, wide-eyed severity by Joanna Glushak). Irving Berlin’s “Puttin’ on the Ritz,” which was a high point in the film, gets similar “super-duper” honors here for Hensley’s Monster, who is really the most sane character in Brooks’ world.
When a new element is introduced — such as when the ghost of Frederick Frankenstein’s grandfather (Erick R. Walck) implores him to join the family business, the song is a natural, “Join the Family Business.” If things are on the obvious side, that’s the fun — and limitation — of parody.
It helps to be in the hands of such masterful reanimators as Brooks, director-choreographer Susan Stroman and Thomas Meehan, who co-wrote the book. But unlike the source material the trio joyously celebrated with their previous collaboration, “The Producers,” here it’s a musical based on a film that is spoofing another film. It’s all broad shtick — and little else.
It’s surprising that the show avoids tapping the natural sentiment between Master and Creature — a connection explored in the many “Frankenstein” films — which might have allowed a moment or two of genuine feeling in the otherwise nonstop hoot. Not that there’s anything wrong with just going for the yuks. But when some — the T&A jokes, for example — land less brilliantly than others, it’s always good to have some substance beyond the gag.
That said, the production is consistently entertaining, supported by top-of-the-line tech and design elements. Robin Wagner’s set is built to travel but still delivers most of the Broadway production’s bells and whistles. Peter Kaczorowski’s lighting and Jonathan Dean’s sound will give horror-movie punch to legit halls. William Ivey Long’s costumes start with the film’s stylish look but then color it with musical-comedy pizzazz.
Reprising the role he played through the Broadway run, Bart steps up from second-banana status and shows that his likability, nimbleness, vocal dexterity and winking wit can hold the spotlight. Of all the performances, his is the one that strives for something that stands apart from the screen version, while still tapping the young scientist’s neuroses and fondness for cranium matters in ways that recall Gene Wilder. Bart’s playful approach is a good fit for Frederick’s Borscht-Belt-Goes-Dada ride.
Cory English’s Igor is also delightfully daft. Ditto Curry’s Elizabeth, who switches from WASP princess to slave of monstrous love with full embrace — and a strong set of pipes. Horak’s Inga needs a bit more comic loopiness and abandon but is otherwise fine.
Brad Oscar (like Bart, another “Producers” alum) does expert double duty as Inspector Kemp and the Blind Man, the latter scoring big in a single scene with Hensley’s Monster. Hensley is frightfully funny here and throughout the show — and nowhere more so than in “Puttin’ on the Ritz,” where the Monster discovers his inner song-and-dance man. The number provides a moment of human — well, almost human — transformation when absurdity, musicality and the entire show really come alive.