Can you zap old material into new life? The perennial problem of the family Frankenstein is the same one facing the comedian Mel Brooks. Exhuming “Young Frankenstein,” his classic comic caper from 1974, he finds it a fresh pulse in musical theater.
“Young Frankenstein” works because it makes an unlikely musical. Where the original set out to spoof one genre – the gothic horror whose tropes had come to feel camp – a musical reboot allows him to send up another. Young Frederick Frankenstein’s return to his uncle’s Transylvanian castle came with one set of clichés; the new form adds a whole other layer of fun. Alongside the hunchbacked servants and pitchfork-wielding villagers, Brooks’ own score chucks in torch songs and high-kicking chorus lines.
Brooks wisely sees his film for what it is – a series of skits stitched into a story – and so expands its best routines into setpieces and songs. The result is an old-school vaudeville musical that switches styles for each scene. That chaste farewell between Frederick and his wife blows up into big song and dance about sexual frustration, while the hayride at the other end becomes a bawdy Bavarian sing-a-long. Even if a lot of it tips into tribute act, with the best gags thwacked into an appreciative audience, it’s played with enough knowing relish to entice surrender from even stony-faced cynics. Brooks’ timing is so neat, his comic touch so infectious, that even the crustiest, creakiest turns – be they rotating bookcases or creaking false limbs – come out looking like classics.
That Susan Stroman serves up an old-school staging, complete with painted backdrops and showbiz pizzazz, makes the whole thing self-aware — enough to disarm any defenses against silliness. The stagey approach culminates in the movie’s best known sequence: “Puttin’ On the Ritz” blossoms from a goofy front-curtain routine to a full-scale fantasia with a chorus of top-hatted, tailcoated monsters tap dancing their heads off beneath a frenzy of strobes. It must be the most purely joyful 10 minutes in town.
That will, most likely, be the making of “Young Frankenstein.” On Broadway, Brooks’ effort lumbered along for a year, trailing mixed reviews in its wake. In Britain, however, it chimes with a comic tradition. Stroman nods to legends of light entertainment – Morecambe and Wise, and Bruce Forsyth – and Brooks’ numbers hark back to the nimble, infantile wit of Monty Python. It’s a smart acquisition by producers Fiery Angel, who scored a big hit with their spoof of “The 39 Steps.”
A lot of that’s in the playing – a cast of willing fools having a lot of fun. Northern comic Ross Noble plays Igor, and though, inevitably, he’s no match for the googly-eyed oddity of the film’s deadpan Marty Feldman, he shuffles around the stage with the relish of a true fan. Shuler Hensley beats his barrel chest as the monster, really coming to life in the second half, and Lesley Joseph’s old housekeeper Frau Bluchner is as dry as the dry ice that floods through the lab.
Really, though, it’s Hadley Fraser’s show. As the chipper Frederick Frankenstein, he steps into Gene Wilder’s considerable shoes and makes them his own. You can tell he’s studied his predecessor – his wild looks and plosive speech taps into Wilder’s comic technique – but he’s never weighed down by impersonation. His Frederick is both fresh-faced and elastic, lending the scientist a frazzled urbanity.
That instills some substance into the silliness, and Brooks and his fellow book-writer, the late Thomas Meehan, layers a scheme on top of his script. In the gap between demented scientist and dumb monster, “Young Frankenstein” muses on the nature of mankind. A musical that opens singing the brain’s praises is motored by men who think with their bodies. Frederick’s lust leads him into temptation – no better than the brute who follows his urges, nor the mob mentality of the villagers that would string him up.
However, just like Frederick’s monster, the musical could use some reconstruction. One can put up with a lashing of light blue sauce – Summer Strallen flashes her frillies as Frankenstein’s buxom assistant, and Fraser does well to instill him with innocence – but it’s harder to stomach Brook’s slips into all-out misogyny. Frau Bluchner hymns an abusive ex in ‘He Vas My Boyfriend,’ while watching the Monster chase his future bride off screaming cuts consent out of the question. They’re the sort of gags that, dug up 40 years on, look altogether putrid. No amount of lightening can make them humane.
West End Review: ‘Young Frankenstein’
Garrick Theatre, London; 732 seats; £97.50 ($130) top. Opened, reviewed Oct. 10, 2017. Running time: 2 HOURS, 20 MIN.
A Fiery Angel production of a musical in two acts by Mel Brooks and Thomas Meehan.
Book by Mel Brooks and Thomas Meehan; Music and lyrics by Mel Brooks; Directed by Susan Stroman; Set Design, Beowulf Boritt; Costume design, William Ivey Long; musical supervision, Glen Kelly; musical direction, Andrew Hilton; orchestrations, Doug Besterman; lighting, Ben Cracknell; sound, Gareth Owen; wigs and hair, Paul Huntley.
Imogen Brooke, Matthew Crandon, Patrick Clancy, Bethan Downing, Nathan Elwick, Kelly Ewins-Prouse, Hadley Fraser, Andrew Gordon-Watkins, Shuler Hensley, Sammy Kelly, Lesley Joseph, Ross Noble, Perry O’Dea, Dianne Pilkington, Richard Pitt, Harriet Samuel-Gray, Gemma Scholes, Emily Squibb, Summer Strallen, Matthew Whennell-Clark, Aron Wild, Josh Wilmott.