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YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN – The Mel Brooks Musical at The Pantages

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Young Frankenstein plays at the Pantages Theater through August 8th
Young Frankenstein plays at the Pantages Theater through August 8th

YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN, playing at the Pantages Theater in Hollywood is a big splashy musical adaptation of Mel Brooks’ classic 1974 comedy film of the same name. It offers more dick jokes than anything from the Rodgers and Hammerstein canon, but at heart it’s an old fashion Broadway musical, with songs more evocative of Jerry Herman or Kander and Ebb than of the current RENT and NEXT TO NORMAL school of theatre scores. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

Adapting YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN for the musical stage was a risky prospect from the start. Its source material was a beloved and genuinely brilliant film of course, but a major factor in the film’s excellence was the trademark Brooks goofiness played against the dark, gloomy atmosphere of the Frankenstein castle and laboratory; sets that looked as if they’d been pulled directly off the Universal back lot, circa 1931. The black-and-white cinematography (a rarity even in 1974) contributed equally to the look and mood of the film. Could the absence of these elements be overcome in a stage production?

Looming even larger, however, was THE PRODUCERS, the 2001 mega-hit Broadway musical based on an earlier Brooks film. THE PRODUCERS was the biggest hit Broadway had seen in years, and was fully deserving of its rave notices and box office success. It was an extraordinary show top to bottom. Unlike YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN, it was one of those movies just screaming to be made into a musical. THE PRODUCERS was, to put it mildly, a tough act to follow.

The national touring production, currently holed up at the Pantages, sports several members of the Broadway cast, including Roger Bart, who played the uber-swishy Carmen Ghia in THE PRODUCERS, and here takes on the lead role of the young Dr. Frederick Frankenstein, grandson of the notorious monster creator. Also reprising their Broadway roles are Shuler Hensley as the monster, and Cory English as Igor. The principle creative team behind the show is virtually identical to THE PRODUCERS: Brooks wrote music and lyrics, with Thomas Meehan collaborating with Brooks on the book; Susan Stroman once again directs and choreographs.

This incarnation of YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN is enjoyable, but never amazing; amusing, but lacking belly laughs, with a pleasant and skillful, but ultimately forgettable score. Classics scenes remembered from the film are recreated, and often expanded upon, but more isn’t always better. The doctor’s departure from New York and his needy fiancée, Elizabeth, is blown up into a production number featuring a song, “Please Don’t Touch Me,” that does nothing to further the plot, and unnecessarily delays the main action of the story. The song, by the way, is rather funny, but should have been excised, and perhaps used to greater advantage, perhaps in a future Brooks production. The movie’s greatest highlight, Dr. Frankenstein and his monstrous creation crooning and tapping to “Puttin’ on the Ritz,” is recreated here, and expanded, as one might expect, to a large song and dance number, but the hilarity simply doesn’t sustain beyond the song’s original duration.

The major problem, however, with the production is Roger Bart’s lead performance. He has, without a doubt, enormous shoes to fill, given Gene Wilder’s brilliance in the film. Bart doesn’t try to ape Wilder, a smart choice, but his quirky-for-quirky’s-sake characterization wears thin quickly. Strangely, he performs as if the audience is already familiar with his “shtick.” Think Nathan Lane or Jerry Lewis performing a role they have become bored with, relying largely on trademark expressions, gestures and delivery, and presuming that and the fact that they are Nathan Lane or Jerry Lewis will delight the audience. (Not suggesting that Lane or Lewis would actually do that.) Bart is neither famous nor funny enough to phone in his performance, one that calls for at least a modicum of Wilder’s nuance. Whether in silly mode, sophisticated mode, or jumping back and forth between a period delivery and a contemporary cadence, Bart’s only constant is lack of commitment. He has the look of an actor who doesn’t trust his material, and has chosen to detach from it, rather than risk sinking.

Joanna Glushak delivers a show-stopping “He was my Boyfriend,” her ditty about the senior Dr. Frankenstein. She’s a comic powerhouse in a supporting role. Just as good is Anne Horak, as the lab assistant, Inga. She’s beautiful, ridiculously sexy, and sings up a storm, while also bringing intelligence to what could easily be a stock dumb blonde character. Brad Oscar, another PRODUCERS vet, does all he can with a duel role: He’s effective as the bumbling Transylvanian inspector who suspects ill deeds are taking place at the castle. Oscar also plays the blind hermit who is briefly visited by the monster. The scene, so memorable in the film, simply doesn’t work in the stage version.

As usual, Stroman delivers a dazzling and fast-moving product, but the “class” that Brooks has often sited as one of her many key contributions to THE PRODUCERS’ success and quality is in short supply here.

Ultimately, YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN, the musical, is difficult to assess. It’s clearly not as good as the film version, and it’s inferior as well to THE PRODUCERS. Would it be more objectively judged if the two earlier entities weren’t so fondly remembered? Perhaps. Or would it even be noticed without the Mel Brooks/Susan Stroman brand name attached? Hard to say. Those queries aside, it’s solid musical theatre entertainment, nothing more, nothing less, and a pleasant, enjoyable evening.

Evening performances: Aug. 4, 5, 6, 7 at 8 p.m., and Aug. 8 at 6:30 p.m.

Matinee performances: Aug. 7 at 2 p.m., and Aug. 8 at 1 p.m.

Pantages Theater

6233 Hollywood Boulevard
Los Angeles, CA 90028-5310
(213) 468-1770