So I'm sitting there way up in the mezzanine of the Hilton Theatre in New York and the production of Mel Brooks' new musical Young Frankenstein is less than one number old and I am already groaning with my face in my hands. Mind you, it's one of those appreciative kinds of facepalms, but a facepalm nonetheless. The opening number -- a funeral celebration, by the way -- features a moment where Inspector Kemp, the Transylvanian figure of authority with two wooden appendages, is re-telling the story of his encounter with Dr. Victor Frankenstein's horrible monstrous creation.
"I went to stop him, but he attacked me!" Kemp tells the assembled villagers, all too happy now that Dr. Vic is now dead and in the ground. "He ripped my left leg off! And then he tore my right arm off and threw it aside! Later, I had to go all the way to Vienna to have replacements made, utilizing the services of one of the most pre-eminent surgeons in all of Europe."
Uh oh. I can hear the train in the distance.
"All the way to Vienna, huh?" one of the villagers marvels. "Was it expensive?"
Oh, no. The train's nearly here; the telegraph machine is on and whirring in full force. My hands are at the ready, and I brace myself for the impending punchline.
"Expensive?! It cost me an arm and a leg!"
Hand, meet palm. The entire theater groans in pain, but it's a good groan of pain. One of the oldest jokes in existence (Fred Allen would've said "The first time I heard that joke, I laughed so hard I bit the nipple off my bottle") telegraphed from a mile away. But wait, there's a turn. The villager holds for the laugh and continues.
"Which cost more, then? The arm or the leg?"
Kemp turns to the audience and deadpans, "We're going to need a new village idiot."
Now that's a Mel Brooksism if ever I heard one, and a decent topper. The show would continue its run on jokes about bodily appendages, mind you, but the appendages involved eventually became such things as, say, third legs.
The rest of the show flew along similarly.
Brooks scored a humongous hit with The Producers because he used a story just begging to be put on stage. It could've originally been a stage musical, really; it was ready to go. All it needed was a few more songs following a typical "I Want / I Have / I Lost" formula, extraneous dances put in for no good reason other than to be a dance number (hello, "Guten Tag Hop-Clop"), an eleven o'clock number that'd sock 'em dead, two sympathetic characters, and a story that'd go well on stage. The Producers had all the elements for a Broadway hit and so in transitioning to stage, it wasn't so much adapted as it was expanded a little (storyline alterations notwithstanding) and set for a live performance. This is what set it apart from other film-to-stage transitions, who merely try for a by-the-numbers adaptation. Hey, look! I remember that scene from the movie! Hey, look, they're doing that joke we always quote! Hey, look, that famous line has just set off another musical number!
Young Frankenstein, the tale of the famous doctor's grandson who, upon returning to Transylvania takes up the ol' family business, does not have the benefit of a made-for-Broadway story, but that does not stop it from trying. So it is more of an adaptation than expansion, more Wedding Singer than Producers. This is not a bad thing, though.
Because truth be told, the Frau Blucher-horse whinny running joke is still funny, the "walk this way" gag still amusing, and those of us who knew the movie were were not disappointed with the "PUT! THE CANDLE! BACK!" routine, which like so many other sequences is lifted pretty much straight from the movie, dialogue and all. Dr. Frederick Frankenstein (that's fronkensteen) bidding farewell to his fiancee Elizabeth (played by Megan Mullally, who is made up to look quite a bit like Madeline Kahn, but still sings in her nasally range) has most of the same lines, but not "Taffeta, darling!" (Damn! I've always loved that exchange.) Mullally then launches into a "Don't Touch Me!" number, however, which is a bit more of an ode to the cocktease than character exposition, and the first real display of bawdiness in the show ("My kids are getting jokes I was hoping they wouldn't," I heard a father comment during intermission.)
Frederick meeting Igor for the first time, as well, is cut and pasted directly from the screenplay, but it's still funny on stage and cues the duo's energetic "Together Again For The First Time" song and dance number. Roger Bart, who plays Frederick with just a bit more manic zeal than Gene Wilder and Christopher Fitzgerald, who channels Marty Feldman all-too-perfectly for Igor (and competes with Andrea Martin's Frau Blucher in the Show Stealing Competition) are wildly energetic and a lot of fun to watch as they work off each other.
Clearly YF is a show that plays to an audience which is familiar with the material, even if sometimes it oversells the jokes just a bit too much. Some of Young Frankenstein's hilarity comes from some of its more surreal, yet subtle and deadpan moments ("Pardon me, boy, is this the Transylvania Station?" "Ja! Ja! Track 29! ...can I give you a shine?") but you can't be subtle when you're playing a broad farce to the house. But not only can a joke be oversold, it can also be shoehorned in when it shouldn't.
For instance, Frau Blucher, with her unlit candelabra, tells Frederick to "Stay close to ze candles. Ze stairway can be... treacherous" when there's no stairway to be seen. She says it outside the castle, when Frederick has just arrived off the hay cart. Incongruous Joke Placement, 5 yard penalty.
And then there's a joke about how the candles are unlit. Oversold joke, 10 yard penalty, still second down. That's an unfair way to treat such a great moment in the film -- the subtlety in the film's joke comes in having the audience realize for themselves that ze candles are unlit. But, then again, this is a stage show, they're playing to a large house, and a prop featuring unlit candles may very well be construed as a prop with a broken effect, so I'm willing to concede the second part. Penalty overturned. Still, the interior castle set does have a staircase, and Blucher does do a bit of business attempting to climb them, so...
Story Doctor to the rescue: Have Blucher advise the Doc of ze candles as she's trying to see him off for the night. Doc declines, saying he'd rather stay downstairs and read up on his grandfather's work. Now it's time to launch in to the "Would ze Doctor care for a brandy before bed?" routine, which Martin pulls off flawlessly. ("Some varm milk, perhaps? ... Ovaltine?! ... I could run out for a triple grande soy macchiatto...")
The characters are all, for the most part, cut and pasted directly from the movie, and I think that hurts storywise. The one thing The Producers did was to expand on the characters of Bialystock and Bloom; their wants and needs are amplified. Young Frankenstein's characters are all farcical caricatures, there are precious few opportunities to expand on them or flesh them out more. In fact, the only real attempt comes when Doc is visited, in a dream, by the ghost of his late grandfather (who appears in a really nicely-executed stage effect) and urged in song to "Join The Family Business" as is his fate as a Frankenstein. (This takes place in lieu of the film's "DESTINY! DESTINY! NO ESCAPING THAT FOR ME!!" nachtmare, and is a bit more effective all things considered.)
Other than that, though, everybody's one-dimensional (with the exception of Inga and the Monster, who turn out to be quite three-dimensional in certain places.) Igor has an excuse: he's simply comic relief, existing to run around and be hilarious, and he does that quite admirably. But in the end, he and Inga and even Frau Blucher, whose "He Vas My Boyfriend" number is incredibly bawdy, are reduced to mere assistants to Frederick and often spend a bit of time running around the stage screaming or fiddling with knobs or whatnot. Even though she's got nothing to do except look sexy and dance around (becoming, in effect, this production's Ulla), Sutton Foster is delightful as Inga; she gets a "Roll in The Hay" song that's boisterous and Barvarian and seductive all at the same time, and in Act II she finally seduces the doctor with a clever song about intellectualism versus libido ("Nietszche said he wouldn't; Schopenhauer said he shouldn't, and as for Immanuel Kant... well, Kant couldn't!")
Some of the songs are rather inspired. Frederick's ode to the brain contains an amazingly fast patter section, the "Together Again For The First Time" number is showbiz entertainment to a T, and the blind hermit's song about "Someone... please, send me someone" turns into a hilarious Al Jolson turn, right down to the fallin-on-my-knees can't-ya-see-I'm-dyin-here bit as the tune turns into a dramatic march.
The hermit scene, by the way, is perfectly re-created in the show and is one of the highlights of Act II.
Mostly, though, the songs all fall into the same kind of showbiz Broadway song pattern. As a composer, Mel Brooks is a hummer: he gets the lyrics down and works on a simple melody in his head. Then he hums or sings what he's got to his partners, who then work an arrangement out of it. This works great, but sometimes can result in a lot of songs sounding kind of the same. I keep hating to go back to The Producers, but it had a bit more a diverse selection of songs. But when Mel gets going, man, he gets going.
The showpiece, of course, is the "Puttin' on The Ritz" number, which is a highlight of the film since it comes out of freakin' nowhere. But even when presented near the end of a stage musical, it is excellent. Andrea Martin introduces the Doctor (and gets one of the biggest laughs of the evening with three words said at just the right time. I love Andrea Martin.) Now this is one of those parts where those who know the movie know what's about to come, and are waiting with eager anticipation. Those who haven't are in for a treat, and when the Monster finally rears his head back and howls PUUHNONNA RIIIIIHZ!! there is an extended ovation. SOOOOPADOOOOPAAAA!!
The dance number pulls off a lot of neat stage tricks: the monster dancing with his shadow, for instance, which then does its own steps when the monster's not looking, is a nicely choreographed piece of dance work which requires perfect timing on both parts (and a nod to the Marx Brothers' mirror routine.) The chorus gets to tapdance in special Monster Clodhopper tap shoes, and in one amazing bit, do an extended bit of jumping on the downbeat against a stark white backdrop. Then a strobe light kicks in as all the other lights go off -- and instead of seeing the flashes of the dancers in mid-air, the optical aftereffects give us their silhouettes in mid-air. That earned applause, as, of course, did the requisite kick line.
The staging, by the way, is incredible. The doctor's laboratory set is pure sci-fi, with multiple levels and neon capacitors and tubes and electrical sparks and giant gears and a gurney which is indeed elevated, right here, in front of everybody. The castle interior has a nifty portrait effect as well as the bookcase turntable, and even the hay cart scene, with a large hay cart, actors dressed as horses, and moving scenery projected on the backdrop (did I mention the cart's facing upstage? This ain't no side-to-side scenery movement, friends) is done quite well. The wheels on the cart spin, the cart bucks back and forth, Inga drapes herself all over the place and near the end of the number, the castle shows up and looms in the distance. No expense was spared, and it is a spectacle, an absolute spectacle. The weird thing is that it was so spectacular that at one point I accidentally dropped my willing suspension of disbelief, as Doc is on the platform, suspended in the air, while lights are flashing and neon going and sparks shooting off and everybody else in tableaux staring up at him. I suddenly went "Yeah. This is what a Broadway spectacular looks like. If the thing fails or if it succeeds, this image will be one of the most iconic. You'll see still photos of it twenty years from now, whether it goes out of style or takes long tours. Yeah."
Then I had to go pick my suspension back up and secure it firmly to my head for the rest of the show.
And what of Megan Mullally, who plays Elizabeth, self-described "madcap fiance"? Well, I'm treating her just as the show treats her: bring her on briefly at the beginning but save her until the end. Once she arrives in Transylvania, she and Andrea Martin have a lovely bit of comic business, Igor bites the head off her stole (didn't Marty Feldman ad-lib that in the film and nearly had Gene Wilder break character?) and then, after meeting the monster and his schwanzschtuker (voof!) sings a touching ode to "Deep Love." Amazingly enough, after the other bawdy numbers which were pretty much single entendres on their own, "Deep Love" keeps a reign on that and remains hilarious with its innuendo.
Mullally does have a lock on Madeline Kahn, though, which is nice, except for the aforementioned singing voice.
All in all, the show is hilarious. I had a lot of fun and I'm hoping those who hadn't seen the film before got the humor as well. But then again, this type of borderline-lewd farce is eternal and needs no external context. However, I don't think Young Frankenstein would've worked first as a stage show and then a movie. It had to be the other way around.
All the performances were great, especially Igor and Frau Blucher. Roger Bart proves to be a Mel Brooks utility player, having created the role of Carmen Ghia in The Producers and graduating to playing Bialystock as well as Roger DeBris (even in the film version.) He does wonderful with the work, keeping up the energy with a manic zeal. There wasn't a single bad act in the bunch, though Inspector Kemp was played rather flat. This is excusable, though, because the actor playing Kemp also did double duty as the blind hermit, and as Kemp has no songs of his own, it's easy to see where the focus was during rehearsals.
I had a great time at Young Frankenstein. It's quite the spectacle, the acting is top-notch, it does sci-fi up right, the staging is incredible and it's just plain fun besides, and I think it will do decent business. But it lacks the heart that The Producers had, as cynical and manipulative as it was, because it lacks characters with heart. Oh, sure, the characters have brains -- whether or not those brains are their own is up in the air -- but nothing behind 'em. Still, as this is an unabashed, unashamed farce which is well-aware of its place in theatre (the cast sings "Maybe next year, Blazing Saddles!" during their curtain call outro) too much heart may not completely be needed, but it sure would've been nice.
Do go see it if you have the chance. Help Mel pay the rent.