Theater review: Young Frankenstein

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Silly, vulgar, and gross are the prize tools in Mel Brooks’s comedy toolbox, but in the musical version of Young Frankenstein, seen at Belk Theater last week, these mainstays of Brooks’s movie mastery became blunt instruments. Early in Act 1, we’re introduced to neurosurgeon Frederick Frankenstein’s fiancée, the smartly tailored Elizabeth, a frigid socialite destined to be thawed by the newborn Transylvanian monster’s prodigious dong. As Frederick bids Elizabeth adieu before boarding an ocean liner, she rejects even a chaste kiss with “Please Don’t Touch Me,” iterating the sentiments contained in its wittiest couplet – “You can feel me till I squeal Just as long as it’s not real” – about a dozen different ways.

But we’ve only just begun. The whole pier – men, women, and a ship’s purser – must all elaborate on Elizabeth’s coldness, now transformed into a dance craze. Virgin or not, one would presume that a real Columbia University department head would drop this dreadful deb and jump onboard the ship, but Frederick persists in his drooling futile pursuit. Yet we ascend to even more vapid, overinflated silliness at the Transylvania Railroad station when Frederick meets the buxom Inga, who invites him aboard a huystropferdeschlagenwagen for a “Roll in the Hay.” Brooks doesn’t even try to inject any salacious wit into the simple lyric of this Tyrolian beerhall polka, preferring to interrupt the repeating refrain with such original pleas from Inga as “I hope you don’t hold it against me.”

New York critics grilled the original Broadway version of Young Frankenstein, but it ran for over a year, so I was interested in find out whether it was as bad a turkey as the touring version, particularly in the agonizing, glacially slow Act 1 exposition. I’d actually judge the Broadway production to be worse on the basis of the original-cast CD. Yes, the wondrous Sutton Foster was trapped in the role of Inga, easily as fine as Synthia Link on tour, though surely more wasted; but Megan Mullally (of Will and Grace fame) was actually far more irritating than Jane Divita is on the road – though Divita tries hard, bless her heart.

Where we really caught a break was with Christopher Ryan as Frederick. Unlike Roger Bart, it didn’t sound to me that Ryan was aspiring to sound like Gene Wilder from the first note of his university lecture song, “The Brain,” so that scene was a nerdy, sadistic joy. The true ghouls, Cory English as Igor and Joanna Glushak as Frau Blucher, also seemed to go their own way in roles immortalized onscreen by Marty Feldman and Cloris Leachman.

There were times when Brooks resisted the urge to pound a single gag into the ground and seized upon the opportunity, presented by the musical medium, to go even further against the grain of classic Gothic horror flicks. The Judith Anderson-like Blucher clunkily pouring out her love to the dearly departed original monster, “He Vas My Boyfriend,” was commendably outré, and who’d ever expect to hear Al Jolson crooning in Transylvania? That’s the outrageous mutation achieved by the blind Hermit’s “Please Send Me Someone,” David Benoit’s nifty cameo when his tedious Inspector Kemp was off-duty.

Overall, Act 2 got to me more often, if only because it tried to get somewhere with more urgency – and because the elaborations on the movie’s most memorable musical interlude, Irving Berlin’s “Puttin’ on the Ritz,” worked so well, easily Preston Truman Boyd’s best moment as The Monster. Still the climactic Victor Herbert moment when Elizabeth discovers the “Sweet Mystery of Life” was jaw-droppingly tepid. Fortunately, Brooks was still holding one of the most memorable songs of the night, “Deep Love,” in reserve for the odd couple’s post-coital cigarette break.

Even that celebration of “long love” and “firm love” could have been slightly improved upon – if Brooks had only acknowledged that he was stealing the melody from “One Song,” written by Frank Churchill and Larry Morey for Disney’s Snow White a full 70 years earlier. Shame on you, Mel! So juvenile.

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