YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN: It’s no Producers, but the performers in this touring version of the Mel Brooks musical are well-honed, well-hoofed, and vocally adept.
As fans of the film are aware, that precipitous crag atop which the castle of Young Frankenstein sits is a Catskill. But in The New Mel Brooks Musical Young Frankenstein (at the Opera House through May 2), the mountain is shrouded less in 1930s-horror-movie gloom than in Vegas glitz. Despite lightning bolts both musical and visual, the tongue-in-cheek dolor of the cinematic original gives way to neon, strobes, and borrowings less from 1931 Frankenstein director James Whale than from, well, Young Frankenstein director Mel Brooks in a more colorful if self-cannibalizing mood. The horses still whinny every time the name of Frau Blucher is invoked. We hear the laugh-triggering catch phrases, from “Werewolf/there, wolf” to “It’s alive!” — and fans anticipate them the way they do the comic grails of Spamalot. But the eagerly awaited 2007 musical based on the 1974 film hardly rises to the bar set by The Producers, the 2001 Broadway reincarnation of the 1968 Brooks film that won a record-setting 12 Tony Awards. Not that that means it’s a complete washout — especially in the polished touring version headlined by original star Roger Bart, a Frankenstein as insistent on the tweaked pronunciation of his surname as Gene Wilder was in the film.
Of course, The Producers had going for it the milieu of Broadway, where its pair of title shysters try to make a fortune off an overcapitalized flop, and even production numbers lesser than “Springtime for Hitler” fit right in. In Young Frankenstein, Brooks adapts less obviously transferable material with his usual bawdy, burlesque sauciness and blunt double entendre. But his songs, when not wryly quoting standards from Fiddler to Phantom, feel dashed off. Is it any wonder, then, that the one terrific number — pilfered from the film but ingeniously expanded upon by director/choreographer Susan Stroman — was written by Irving Berlin? Here, when Frankenstein introduces his monster to the Transylvanian medical community and hoi polloi by dressing the creature up in a tuxedo and dueting with him to “Puttin’ on the Ritz,” Rye Mullis’s looming, lurching mass of reanimated tissue, tap-dancing on cothurni, his plaintive countenance as green as Wicked’s Elphaba’s, is joined first by an even larger and nimbler shadow doppelgänger and then by a dozen in the flesh.
Would that the rest of this extravagant mélange of hoky creepiness and even hokier comedy were so inspired. But as with Disney’s Beauty and the Beast rather than its The Lion King, every effort has been made to replicate rather than reinvent the material. First, there’s a brief prologue in which, following the following of the coffin of the recently deceased Baron Victor von Frankenstein, the Transylvanian peasantry ditch their umbrellas and funereal weeds in favor of what look like folk-dancing threads. But quickly we’re off to find our hero among his medical students at New York’s “John, Miriam, and Anthony Hopkins School of Medicine” (one of the few unrecycled jokes), insisting that he has no interest in continuing the sinister scientific shenanigans of his grave-robbing Gramps. Then, before we can say “Mary Shelley Berman,” YF is being waved off to Europe by his mushily frigid socialite fiancée, asking, “Pardon me, boy, is this the Transylvania Station?”, and heading toward his destiny in a rickety hay wagon accompanied by the wanderingly humpbacked Igor and the buxom milkmaid of a lab assistant, Inga.