After transforming his classic 1968 film “The Producers,” into 2001’s record-breaking, 12-time Tony Award-winning blockbuster as a Broadway musical, only a fool would think that comic genius Mel Brooks wouldn’t go back to the well for another shot.
And, though he may have played one on film and television, Mel Brooks is certainly no fool.
And so, he whipped his 1974 B&W comic horror film nugget “Young Frankenstein,” into shape as a big stage musical to follow in footsteps of “The Producers.”
On Tuesday night, the touring production of what (at least according to the program) is officially titled “The New Mel Brooks Musical: Young Frankenstein,” hit the stage at Proctors in Schenectady before a full house of enthusiastic fans.
But the results are not quite as successful, as they were with “The Producers.”
“Young Frankenstein” – the film – was a parody of those classic Lon Chaney/Bela Lugosi horror films, and while it may have made a successful transition to the stage, it doesn’t have as strong a narrative as “The Producers” did. It’s a parody. And Brooks (who wrote the music and lyrics, and co-wrote the book with Thomas Meehan) just didn’t pack enough new punches into the stage show.
If you’ve seen the film, you pretty much know exactly what to expect – which, of course, is a good part of the fun – and there were more than a few enthusiastic fans in the theater on opening night who were doubling the onstage dialogue from their seats.
But Brooks falls a bit short if his mission was to update and interject many more contemporary references into the musical.
Another problem is that, well, it’s a musical, and Brooks plays by fairly conventional stage musical rules. Which means that there’s got to be a love song. Dr. Frankenstein’s blond, buxom assistant Inga (Synthia Link) steps up to the plate to deliver with “Listen to Your Heart” early in Act Two, but it interupts the flow of the narrative as well as the comic pacing.
It didn’t help matters any that the following song, “Surprise” – sung by Dr. Frankenstein’ finance Elizabeth (Janine Divita) – equally clogs up the story with an unnecessary song ‘n’ dance routine.
But the crucial difference between Mel Brooks’ musical reinterpretation of his films is that “The Producers” (the film) was already primed with songs – like the gem “Springtime for Hitler” – while the only key music in “Young Frankenstein” (the film) was Irving Berlin’s standard “Puttin’ on the Ritz.”
As talented as Brooks is, he didn’t really come up with a song that stands up to the level set by Berlin’s melodic talent. And I’m betting that 90 percent of the folks walking out at the end of an enjoyable evening at the theater were humming “Puttin’ On the Ritz,” rather than any of Brooks’ tunes.
And that’s not the sign of a successful musical…
All that said, the production at Proctors certainly delivers the goods, hitting all of the high notes and the low humor of the show. While perhaps a bit too leading-man handsome for the role of scientist Frederick Frankenstein, Christopher Ryan finds the right, delicate balance between straight man and comedian. As his hunchbacked assistant Igor, Cory English plays it strictly for laughs – and gets ’em – all night long without even once resorting to Marty Feldman impersonations.
The best of the cast, however, is Joanna Glushak as Frau Blucher, who delivers a deliciously dead-on Marlene Deitrich homage during “He Vas My Boyfriend.”
And let’s have a round of applause for Alex Puette and Dave Schoonover, whose equine excellence as the horses in the hay wagon scene (“Roll in the Hay”) was simply hilarious.
William Ivey Long’s costumes are exquisite, too – black and white balanced with vibrant bursts of bold color – as well as revealing the requisite amount of leg and cleavage required by the delightfully sophomoric Brooks.
The sight gags and vaudeville schtick that Brooks packed into the show roll merrily along thanks to director Susan Stroman, but her real gift is for choreography, and the dancing in “Young Frankenstein” is as good as it gets. The shadow dance by Preston Truman Boyd (as the Monster) is as brilliant as the Marx Brothers’ mirror routine that inspired it. And the ensemble’s terrific tap work during “Puttin’ On the Ritz” is a hoot and half – and they do it all while wearing monster-sized clodhoppers.
NOTE: Warm up for tonight’s performance with a 7pm pre-show Franks-n-Steins Party in Proctors’ GE Theatre. Featuring hot dogs from Schenectady’s Newest Lunch and beer from Davidson Brothers Brewery. Admission to the party is $15.
Michael Eck’s review at The Times Union