Wednesday, November 07, 2007
It's Alive...If Not Exactly Kicking
By Josh R
A gathering mob is gearing up to march on Frankenstein’s castle, for the purpose of dispensing bloody justice. Transylvanian peasants bearing torches and pitchforks? Not quite — these vigilantes hail from the village of Manhattan, and are consequently more likely to be seen sporting fashions from Barney’s Fifth Avenue than dirndls and lederhosen. They’re the New York theater critics, and Mel Brooks, be warned — the head they’re coming for is yours.
Following up a monster success is the trickiest proposition on Broadway, and filmdom’s favorite mad scientist and his crack team of specialists — which includes director-choreographer Susan Stroman and bookwriter Thomas Meehan — find themselves faced with the toughest act to follow since Lerner and Loewe ignited The Great White Way with their tale of a cockney flower girl being molded into a fairy-tale princess. The team responsible for My Fair Lady followed that mammoth 1956 hit with the much-maligned Camelot — a worthy if less-than-sparkling entry that wound up on the receiving end of a critical tongue-lashing when it made its Broadway bow four years later. Negative comparisons to a previous success are inevitable when the bar has been set ridiculously high, and any player who has hit a home run in the first inning is likely to be accused of underachieving at their next turn at bat (check out the reviews for Alice Sebold’s latest for evidence of how quickly the critics can turn on their darlings).
Which brings us to Young Frankenstein, a show that has borne the weight of expectations about as lightly as a donkey carrying an elephant on its back. The 2001 musical adaptation of Brooks’ cult classic The Producers was greeted with the kind of enthusiasm Catholics usually reserve for a visit from the pope — if not the return of the Messiah, bringing with him his apostles, the cure for all diseases and The Fab Four, reunited to record a sequel to The White Album (Paul and Ringo aren't dead yet, but you get the drift). Indeed, critics all but exhausted their catalog of superlatives in their attempts to encapsulate its genius — the cheering section was so loud it practically blew out the eardrums of anyone within arm’s reach of a newspaper kiosk.
Young Frankenstein marks Brooks’ second attempt at adapting one of his cinematic properties into a Broadway musical, and from the minute he announced his intentions to do so, the deck has been stacked against him. Regardless of what the finished product may have turned out to be — and I’ll arrive at that presently — it is going to be compared unfavorably to its predecessor; sight unseen, that was always going to be the case. The Magnificent Ambersons had the bad fortune to come on the heels of Citizen Kane, and was dismissed as “a lesser effort” even by the critics who praised it — such is the nature of the beast.
It must be duly reported that Young Frankenstein, which opens on Nov. 8 at The Hilton Theatre, invites no such parallel — Orson Welles followed up his 1941 masterpiece with another, albeit lesser masterpiece. Mr. Brooks, Ms. Stroman and Mr. Meehan have followed up their gold-plated achievement with something that is mostly amusing, largely derivative and pretty solidly OK. While there is nothing about the show to cause any offense to the film’s vast army of fans, or to prevent audiences with cash to burn from having a perfectly agreeable experience, nor can Brooks & Co. be credited with having created anything for the ages.
Going over the plot of Young Frankenstein would constitute the ultimate exercise in redundancy, as it is doubtful that anyone reading this is unfamiliar with the film on which it is based — or, in some cases, would have any trouble reciting it line-for-line. The stage version is incredibly (and often slavishly) faithful to the original film, which is essentially a farcical recapitulation of Hollywood’s bowdlerized version of the Frankenstein tale — it owes more to James Whale’s 1931 film adaptation, and its even loopier sequel, than it does to anything that the morbid Victorian Mary Shelley ever cranked out. Jokes have been added, sequences have been streamlined while others have been padded out, but the alterations don’t take the material in a different direction; this is your father’s Young Frankenstein, preserved in all its original silly splendor. All of the film’s most cherished bits of comic business — from the monster’s slapstick encounter with a blind hermit to the sublime absurdity of “Puttin' on the Ritz” — are present and accounted for, as is most of the original dialogue. Nothing is quite as funny as it was in the context of the film, but the laughs are still there, and for the most part, they still work. As a musical adaptation, Young Frankenstein translates more smoothly than expected — although not as seamlessly as The Producers, which had an actual show business theme and milieu to make use of. The wittily conceived musical numbers are interpolated with the content of the screenplay in ways that seem natural at times and awkward at others — for every song that seems like a logical extension of the original material, there’s an elaborate production number that seems superfluous. The songs, while largely undistinguished, are tuneful and amusing enough, even if the musical highlight remains “Puttin' on the Ritz,” which was written by Irving Berlin in 1929. All in all, while not perfect, the show that’s rattling its chains on the stage of the cavernous Hilton Theatre is basically up to snuff.
Which is not to say that something — more than one thing, actually — doesn’t get lost in the shuffle. Much of the appeal of the 1974 film came from manner in which it paid winking homage to 1930s Universal horror features, creating a look and feel in keeping with the tradition of Whale’s creepy classic and its progeny; on a stage as opposed to the screen, and in full color as opposed to black & white, the effect can't really be duplicated. The scenic design, while nothing if not elaborate, suggests the Haunted Mansion at Disney World more than Hollywood’s ghoulishly baroque take on middle-European villages and castles — similarly, the energetic chorus seems like a bunch of smiling, high-leaping refugees from an Oktoberfest-theme amusement park. As a result, what seemed naughty, clever and rude about the film version is, in the present context, rather cute. Now, I for one have an amazingly high tolerance level for cute — I can ingest large quantities of whipped cream without gagging on it (I had fun at Legally Blonde, for Chrissakes), and I can even stomach a heaping spoonful of the warm fuzzies (somehow I made it through all seven seasons of Gilmore Girls), but for a show that is striving to be crude, dirty fun with streak of zaniness, cute doesn’t go very far toward achieving the desired effect. Even though much of Brooks’ humor is rooted in gleefully bad taste, this Young Frankenstein often winds up feeling like a lavishly produced work of children’s theater with R-rated jokes.
Nor can the cast, as talented and resourceful as they are, really compete with the memory of their cinematic forebearers (although one comes surprisingly close). That notwithstanding, every principal player more than justifies his or presence on the bill — with the exception of the leading man, who labors mightily to put his own stamp on the role but whose energies seem largely misdirected.
That’s a nice way of saying that the casting of Roger Bart in the central role of Dr. Friedrich Frankenstein (pronounced Fronck-en-steen, if you please) represents something of a misfire. With his withered lips and anxious features, Bart is a born character actor whose deliciously sour charms have been put to wondrous good use in roles that require an element of sly superciliousness. This is not to say that he isn’t leading man material — rather that, for the purposes of what Brooks has in mind, he does not come ideally equipped for the assignment. On film, Gene Wilder used his wonderfully woebegone milquetoast quality as the set-up for a great punchline; the soft-spoken, put-upon schlemiel attains the wild-eyed, manic intensity of a raving lunatic when visions of monsters start dancing in his head — the transformation from colorless nebbish to shrieking loony-bird was as improbable as it was hysterical. Bart isn’t physically or vocally equipped to make a similar transition — everything about him is too sharp, too brittle, too overtly flamboyant, to start out small and then get bigger (it would be like directing Paul Lynde to imitate Charles Grodin). As a result, the manic intensity is there from the outset, leaving the actor with nowhere to go — this doctor seems less like someone inadvertently stumbling onto his own madness than one who’s been wearing it as a badge of honor from the very beginning. Gene Wilder got his laughs in the early stages of the film by speaking in the abashed tones of one who functions in a perpetual state of queasy uncertainty; Bart gets his by upping the volume and making faces.
If the man leading the charge comes up a bit lame, the supporting cast makes up some of the stagger. In the past, Sutton Foster’s technical proficiency as a singer and dancer has occasionally had the effect of making her seem a bit mechanical (as in: wind her up and she does theater). The role of Inga, the good doctor’s cheerfully oversexed laboratory assistant, allows her to loosen up and channel her inner dingaling, at least in the show’s early going — with her candy-colored dirndl and Marie Osmond grin, she suggests nothing so much as Gretel after having gorged herself on the witch’s gingerbread shingles and gone goofy from the sugar rush. She takes full advantage of the polka-inflected “Roll, Roll, Roll in the Hay,” bouncing happily around a rickety cart while delivering a master class in yodeling — she’s like a singing marionette in a glockenspiel that’s popped its springs and gone haywire. If the actress doesn’t manage to strike the same note of giddy abandon in the remainder of her scenes, it’s because her character becomes something of an afterthought — and her second act seduction number, “Listen to Your Heart,” is played a bit too earnestly to make much of an impression. The ever-dependable Andrea Martin scrunches up her features into an expression of constipated discomfort as the morose housekeeper, Frau Blucher — the very mention of whose name is enough to send listeners of the equine variety into fits of apoplexy. Dragging a chair across the floor with mincing steps, then straddling it like a chorine at the Kit Kat Club, she clowns her way decadently through the Weill-esque “He Vas My Boyfriend,” detailing the humiliation and abuse she suffered at the hands of her deceased paramour (naturally, while professing her love for every disgusting, degrading minute of it). She comes much closer to suggesting the stylized delivery of Lotte Lenya than Donna Murphy did in LoveMusik, while parodying it to wonderfully hilarious effect. Megan Mullally, as the doctor’s frigid fiancée who is brought to the threshold of ecstasy after a tumble with Ol’ Zipperneck, enjoys herself thoroughly with the extended dirty joke of “Deep Love” — a romantic ballad extolling the virtues of the monster’s considerable, ahem, proportions. While I found the actress a bit much to take during her decadelong stint as Will & Grace's booze-swilling socialite, for the purposes of this show she lowers her voice, maintains her shtick level at a nongrating setting and fits right in as the third member of the show’s trio of female clowns. If none reach the delirious heights of Cloris Leachman, Madeline Kahn and Teri Garr, they all know exactly how to get their laughs — and moreover, how to milk them.
Nor are the male members of the supporting cast in any danger of fading into the background. With his green facepaint and bulky frame, Shuler Hensley suggests an unlikely hybrid of Boris Karloff and The Incredible Hulk. As The Monster, he is a more visually menacing presence than Peter Boyle was, which is fortunately not so scary that he ceases to be funny. His tap-dancing solo in “Puttin' on the Ritz,” which wittily pits him opposite his own, attention-seizing shadow, constitutes the show’s comedic highpoint, and he gets a well-earned laugh at the end as well — even if you’ve heard Hensley sing before, after an evening of grunts and growls, the unveiling of his soaring operatic baritone comes as a deliciously funny shock. The doughy-featured Fred Applegate has a rather nonspecific quality as a performer, which allows him to double in two wildly different roles; while his wooden-limbed Inspector Kemp lacks the scenery-chewing officiousness of Kenneth Mars’ indelible screen creation, he more than makes up for it with his wistful blind hermit, who adopts an Al Jolson-like posture — working the jazz hands on bended knee — while praying to the heavens to “Please Send Me Someone.”
Standing head and shoulders above them all is the diminutive Christopher Fitzgerald, who minces and mugs his way through the role of Igor as if the fate of Western Civilization depended upon it. While perhaps the most unheralded member of the star-studded cast, this infinitely resourceful comic imp comes the closest of anyone to capturing the frenetic spirit of the original film, and is the evening’s unequivocal standout. Fitzgerald is a whirling dervish of energy, and even when relegated to the sidelines, his comic inventiveness never flags — he attacks the role with such unbridled enthusiasm that he practically flies through it. Marty Feldman, the original Igor, had a pointy chin and peepers the size of hard-boiled eggs, which he used to deliciously comic effect — Fitzgerald, while possessed of a more circumspect set of features, has an improbably ridiculous array of facial expressions that not only conjure up fond memories of the role’s originator, but give him the hyper-animated quality of a rubbery-faced cartoon character brought to three-dimensional life.
The actor, who is a true find, is by far the best thing about a show that seems to have been predestined to settle for second best. Brooks and his cohorts labor mightily to match the standard of their previous collaboration, and to a large extent, the strain shows; there are many moments — say, for example, when a song's lyrics include something on the order of “There is nothing like a brain” — when you can catch more than a slight whiff of desperation in the air. As for the most pressing question — is the show worth giving up next month’s rent in order to see (orchestra seats go at an obscene $450 a pop) — as your physician, I’d advise against it. Die-hard Brooks fans won’t really get anything they couldn’t get from popping in the DVD for the umpteenth time, and musical theater buffs should hold out for discount tickets; frankly, even if Dr. Brooks had re-animated the dead corpse of Ethel Merman for an encore performance of Gypsy, I’d have to swallow hard before shelling out $450 for the privilege of seeing her in action. The Producers was a once-in-a-lifetime phenomenon — Young Frankenstein, while a perfectly enjoyable light diversion, doesn’t really distinguish itself as anything beyond that. In its last outing, Team Brooks served up chocolate soufflé with a raspberry filling, drenched in rum sauce. This time, the result, while tasty, feels more like leftover Halloween candy — easily digested, and just as easily forgotten.
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thanks for finally saying that yeah...it isn't so great. the original film is my favorite movie and i was so sick of seeing EVERYONE praise the musical up and down. the clips i saw from it were...less than impressive. and i agree...bart is the worst. gene wilder can not be replaced, nor can any of the cast, but i feel bart just "doesn't get it" as far as the role is concerned. marty feldman, who is my favorite, is probably the most irreplacable of the cast but i agree that fitzgerald is decent. his delivery of the "where wolf, there wolf" line wasn't so great...but there are other parts where he's "got it".
with that said, i feel mel shouldn't have tampered with this to begin with haha.
with that said, i feel mel shouldn't have tampered with this to begin with haha.
It seems to me that Blazing Saddles might have made an easier transition into a musical. Let's just hope Mel stops before Stroman has to choreograph a full-fledge showstopper for "The Inquisition" in History of the World Part I: The Musical.
haha...i know right. mel brooks needs to calm down!
here's an idea..."Silent Movie...The Musical"! hahaha!
here's an idea..."Silent Movie...The Musical"! hahaha!
Blazing Saddles would have to have a number like the Terrence & Phillip number in South Park: Bigger Longer and Uncut, where the lyrics are just farts. I personally can't wait for Robin Hood: Men In Tights, The Musical. Starring Kevin Costner as Robin!Post a Comment
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