Saturday, August 18, 2007

Stage: Young Frankenstein

It’s important in any entertainment to establish tone early. Which is why it was good to hear, in the opening scene of the new Mel Brooks musical Young Frankenstein, that the title doctor is on staff at “the Johns, Miriam and Anthony Hopkins School of Medicine.” It lets you know what you’re in for. And it signaled to me that I’d be right at home. Three fleet hours of bawdy jokes, leggy dancers and Jolson impressions is my idea of a good time.

I had my doubts about Mel Brooks tuning up the film, but I shouldn’t have. After all, YF has the strongest spine of any Brooks movie. The play’s book by Brooks and Thomas Meehan hews closely to the original script by Brooks and Gene Wilder, right down to many favorite lines. (“What knockers!” is there, “It could be raining” is not, and “He vas my boyfriend!” is its own number.) Mel had more work to do on The Producers.

The familiarity of the movie is perhaps the biggest challenge to a ridiculously talented cast, but they’re all able to put their own spins on well-established characters. The one actor who by circumstance is forced into an imitation, Christopher Fitzgerald as Marty Feldman as Igor, walks off with the show. Go figure.

Sutton Foster, a Broadway veteran I know as Coco from Flight of the Conchords, joins Shakira on the short list of women who make yodeling sexy. It’s an embarrassment of riches onstage, with Roger Bart as Frederick Frankenstein, Andrea Martin as Frau Blucher (complete with horse whinnies), Will & Grace’s Megan Mullally succeeding Madeline Kahn as Elizabeth, and Shuler Hensley as the Monster. Odd note: Hensley, a Tony winner for Oklahoma!, played Frankenstein’s Monster in Van Helsing, although to my knowledge he doesn’t have a number in that movie. I also have to mention Fred Applegate, doing double duty as Inspector Kemp (the Kenneth Mars role) and the blind hermit. In the latter scene he manages to do a perfect rendition of Gene Hackman’s distinctive chuckle, a tribute I think was intended just for me.

The caliber of the cast is so high that it’s a problem finding enough for them to do. Mullally, the best known performer, has only one song in the first act and then disappears until midway through act two. She did have a second Act One number according to the program, but it had already been cut a week into previews.

The true star of the show is director/choreographer Susan Stroman. Her staging deploys a full battery of techniques to create a palpable mood, and on top of that she fills the stage with dancers.

Brooks’s songs are the show’s weak link. (Name one song from The Producers. Go ahead, I dare you.) They’re more like ditties, excuses for bits of comic business. But they’re socked over with such gusto by the cast and so inventively presented that you don’t mind.

The one truly memorable song in the score is the only one Brooks didn’t write: Irving Berlin’s “Puttin’ on the Ritz.” The movie’s use of the song has nothing on how it plays out here. The number starts out small, then slowly and surely builds into pure joyous delirium. My sides actually ached when it was over.

Young Frankenstein runs at Seattle’s Paramount Theater through September 1, then moves to Broadway. Friends in New York already report that tickets are hard to come by. Insert monster hit joke here.