‘Young Frankenstein’ musical improves on original B’way version with great cast, classic shtick
ARNOLD WAYNE JONES | email@example.com
Winspear Opera House,
2403 Flora St. Through Jan. 23.
The danger with stage-musical adaptations of revered comic movies is that they can seem like retreads a familiar material … unless they go entirely in another direction, where they risk alienating the core fans who loved the original. Which is it: Rerun or square one?
The consensus over the last dozen or more years has been to play it safe: Spamalot kept most of the Monty Python shtick, The Producers recreates “Springtime for Hitler,” Hairspray (probably the least well-known of the sources) tweaked the plot but retained the man in drag lead.
Young Frankenstein, which is settling in for a three-week stint at the Winspear Opera House, was adapted by Mel Brooks from his best film, and his signature Borscht Belt humor remains intact: The double entendres (lots of boob jokes and suggestive allusions to penis size), the one-liners, the well-worn gags (whenever the crone Frau Blucher’s name is spoken, horses whinny). But somehow, these don’t seem tired but timeless. It’s almost as funny as watching the film, with new songs that give it a polished theatricality.
Frederick (“it’s pronounced ‘Fronk-en-shteen’”) is the grandson of the notorious ghoul Victor, who unleashed a monster nearly a century earlier on torch-wielding villages in Central Europe. Frederick is a respected surgeon in the U.S., but returns to claim his grandfather’s estate. Instead, Frederick is seduced by Victor’s genius, and starts the whole process over, with a green, tap-dancing creature who’s very popular with the ladies.
As Frederick (or is it Froederick?), Christopher Ryan makes for a rubbery, bright-eyed hero. A cross between Ben Stiller (before he sold out to Fockerdom) and SNL’s Bill Hader, he has more charisma and comic chops than Roger Bart, who created the role on Broadway. Limber physically and lyrically, on “The Brain” he doffs a litany of scientists’ names more trippingly than a Gilbert & Sullivan specialist.
Ryan doesn’t steal the show, though; no one does. The entire cast is tight, all with superb comic sensibilities. The most outrageous performance comes from Cory English as Igor, Frederick’s stooge. Marty Feldman, who created the role in the film, was a singular talent, bug-eyed and fearless, so English’s ability to make Igor his own while still honoring Feldman is surprising. (Young Frankenstein is less gay than Brooks’ other “monster,” the wildly successful The Producers, but English camps it up.)
Joanna Glushak’s Frau Blucher — pulled tighter than Faye Dunaway at a Botox convention — captures Cloris Leachman’s startled, repressed spinster with grand delight, especially on her solo “He Vas My Boyfriend.” Janine Divita — playing the Madeline Kahn role originated by Megan Mullally in the Broadway version — brings her own energy to a part hand-crafted for two indelible stars.
Not all of the gimmicks played well with a slightly tame Winspear audience this week; the repeated lyric “tits, tits, tits” led to uncomfortable tittering, and a joke about a gay bar fell flat. But director/choreographer Susan Stroman has a light touch with the material, at once cheekily ironic and spot-on old-school flash: “Puttin’ on the Ritz” becomes a production number worthy of Busby Berkeley. Now that’s a show to see.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition January 7, 2011.