When it opened on Broadway in 2007, the critical reaction to Mel Brooks' musical Young Frankenstein was so poor that the press corps wondered if it had inadvertently created a monster (so to speak). After all, Brooks' earlier The Producers--likewise adapted from a beloved Brooks film and likewise directed by Susan Stroman--had received near-universal hosannas, along with a record number of Tony Awards, including Best Musical. Young Frankenstein, riding on The Producers' coattails, must have seemed a sure thing.
I write, then, not to savage Mel Brooks' book, lyrics, and score--which are at best sophomoric--but to praise Stroman's endless invention: she is surely one of the finest director/choreographers of her generation, and she almost makes Young Frankenstein sing. Or at least tap. It's telling that the highlight of evening--a stylish fantasia on "Puttin' on the Ritz"--has nearly nothing to do with Mel Brooks: there's no scripted dialogue, the lyrics and music are by Irving Berlin, and the whole shebang is choreographed to within an inch of its life by Stroman, pulling out every stop. It's eight minutes of musical theater bliss.
But even Stroman can't make a purse out of a penis joke, and there are plenty of phallic gags in the run-up to "Puttin' on the Ritz." The meager, non-penis-related plot follows the travails of Dr. Frankenstein's grandson, Frederick, now living in New York, and inheritor of his grandfather's estate in Transylvania. En route to the inevitable creation and mismanagement of The Monster, we've a catchy production number ("Transylvania Mania"), a pointless novelty tune ("Roll in the Hay"), and the bizarre, pseudo-Freudian plaint of frigid women everywhere, "Don't Touch Me." But much of the evening feels like padding, usually of the Borscht Belt variety.
Still, the cast has got game, and then some. Roger Bart--best known as the homicidal pharmacist on Desperate Housewives--makes a capable Young Frankenstein, and the principals that surround him (including Cory English, Chuck Rea, Beth Curry, and Rye Mullis) ape the dated, Three Stooges-style of acting required by the book. (So: if you ever wanted to know what a Laurel and Hardy skit would sound like with the word "fuck" in it, now's your chance. Seize the moment.) Joanna Glushak (as the lovelorn vamp Frau Brucher) manages to transcend her thin material, particularly in the goofily tasteless "He Vas My Boyfriend," a torch song for the abused domestic partner in all of us. Even stripped down for the tour, Robin Wagner's set boasts some pyrotechnic surprises.
But at least Young Frankenstein wasn't canceled on the road like 101 Dalmations, and the production looks handsome, even if the sound was occasionally indistinct on opening night. (The couple behind me couldn't figure out the lyrics to the g-spot-themed ballad "Deep Love." Honestly, no great loss.) But compared to a musical like Billy Elliot--which was completely rethought as a musical--Young Frankenstein seems to be resting on the laurels of its far superior cinematic incarnation. There are scattered laughs and some amusing choreography, but at nearly two hours and forty-five minutes, Young Frankenstein could use some surgery itself.
-Thomas Jenkins, theater critic and occasional monster.