In 2001, Mel Brooks indefatigably put the comedy back into musical comedy with his Tony Award-winning adaptation of his 1969 masterpiece The Producers. In more recent times, laughter has no longer been a prime ingredient of the genre. There are exceptions, of course, The Book of Mormon (not a favourite of mine) being one of them.
Happily, at age 91, guffaws are once again the first item on his agenda with a musical adaptation of his 1974 hit, Young Frankenstein. It’s his second crack at it. I saw it on Broadway 10 years ago, and what a train wreck that was! The good news is that this revisited paired-down, altogether streamlined new version has, like Frankenstein’s monster, been brought back to life, with side-splitting results.
Somewhat skeptical of its success, Brooks, in an interview, anticipated that it would inevitably be unfavourably compared to The Producers – and he’s right; it isn’t in that show’s league. But hey, who cares? What you’re getting is a potpourri of pastiche and parody – two and a half hours of verbal and visual shtick as Brooks ransacks every vaudeville trick of his trade. Anything goes. One-liners that were old the day they were born mingle indiscriminately with fresher variations on the same corny gags. Puns, double entendres and familiar routines (such as “walk this way”) tickle the funny bone afresh as the cherishable Mel and his co-writer, the late, indispensable Thomas Meehan, diligently transplant the film to the stage.
Inspired by director James Whale’s iconic 1931 horror classic Frankenstein, this affectionate parody focuses on Victor Frankenstein’s grandson Frederick, a professor of neurology living in New York, who is summoned to Transylvania to dispose of his grandfather’s formidable Gothic estate.
Taking leave of his frigid fiancée Elizabeth, Frederick, who now calls himself Fronkensteen because of the bad publicity generated by his grandfather, extends his Transylvanian visit after falling for his sexy assistant Inga. Her accomplishments include yodeling and gathering hay with a pitchfork (“I’m a very hard forker,” she says). Her in-your-face physical attributes prove irresistible and are the butt (pun intended) of a plethora of smutty innuendoes that would not have been out of place in the Carry On films of the 60s and 70s.
Apart from Inga, Frederick is also attracted to the prospect of furthering his grandfather’s life-resuscitating experiments in general and, in particular, transplanting a brain into a corpse. As in the film, he is aided and abetted by the castle’s resident hunchback, Igor, and by his grandfather’s formidable housekeeper Frau Blucher, the very mention of whose name cues alarmed whinnying in a pair of the castle’s resident horses.
It’s all very silly – and endlessly infectious. And it is cast to perfection. Hadley Fraser, in the role created by Gene Wilder, is less neurotic than his predecessor and even manages to maintain a refreshing modicum of sanity in the over-the-top circumstances. No such restraint, however, about Ross Noble’s Igor, a whirling dervish whose sheer physicality and comic timing are a joy. Shuler Hensley, the only member of the ill-fated 2007 Broadway cast, repeats his role as the Monster, ensuring that the famous "Puttin’ on the Ritz" number (by Irving Berlin) in the second half is as effective on stage as it was on screen. And, as the blind Hermit, Patrick Clancy (doubling up as the local policeman) pilfers some of the best laughs of the evening.
On the distaff side, and far superior to their Broadway counterparts, are Dianne Pilkington, who, as Frederick’s untouchable fiancée, makes the most of the show’s least rewarding role and Lesley Joseph (excellent too) as the housekeeper, her revelation that Victor Frankenstein “vas my boyfriend” being one of the highlights of the night.
Best of all, though, is Summer Strallen as Inga. Very similar to the character of Ulla in The Producers, she’s a seductive riot, especially in the saucy "Roll in the Hay" number, just one of the many tuneful pastiches that provide the bulk of Brooks’ catchy score, with its deliberate references to such musicals as South Pacific and Cabaret. His lyrics, by the way, are pretty resourceful too.
Also paying tribute to musicals of the past is director/choreographer Susan Stroman, whose homage to Fred Astaire in the "Bojangles of Harlem" number from the 1936 movie Swing Time is just one more indication of how widely the creative team of Young Frankenstein has cast its net as part of an irresistible time warp. Her fast-paced, super-slick staging is, in all is aspects, the show’s standout achievement.
Rounding it off visually is Beowulf Boritt’s evocative sets and William Ivey Long’s costumes. Nostalgia has rarely had it so good.