Saturday, August 25, 2007

Mel Brooks' Young Frankenstein is a monster hit

published in The News Tribune, Aug. 25, 2007

Mel Brook’s “Young Frankenstein” has huge shoes to fill, and I’m not talking about the oversized clodhoppers worn by the monster; I’m talking about the giant footsteps left by Brook’s last movie-to-Broadway mega-hit, "The Producers" starring Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick.

If audience reaction at Thursday night’s opening at Seattle’s Paramount Theatre is any kind of barometer, Brooks and company have another monster hit (pun most definitely intended).

The Seattle audience was by far the most rambunctious theater crowd I have ever seen – a fact gleefully acknowledged by Brooks himself when he made a surprise curtain-call appearance and said he had a bus waiting outside to take the whole audience with them.

Like “The Producers” – which won 12 Tony Awards, the most ever for a single production, and ran for six years on Broadway, making it the longest-running musical comedy in history – “Young Frankenstein” is a re-write of a film by Brooks, the 1974 hit film of the same name starring Gene Wilder. It’s funny in the over-the-top way that all of Brooks’ films and plays are funny. It is filled with show-biz shtick and running jokes that are almost run into the ground. How many times can we hear horses neigh at the mention of Frau Blucher’s name or Dr. Frankenstein ask Igor if his hump was on the other side before it ceases to be funny? Apparently there is no limit, as Brooks operates on the principal that anything worth doing is worth over doing. (The hump shtick, by the way, is a setup for a clever twist when Igor thinks his hump has vanished, and there are equally clever variations on the horse-neighing bit.)

But it is not the expected funny bits that make this show a delight. It is the wonderful ensemble song-and-dance numbers and the incredible sets and special effects. The real stars of the show are Robin Wagner’s scenic designs, Peter Kaczorowski’s lighting, special effects designed by Marc Brickman, and a crew of stagehands that pulled off some of the most seamless set changes ever seen.

The big ensemble numbers are in the tradition of old-time Broadway spectacles like “Oklahoma” and “Fiddler on the Roof,” and the ensemble dancers are athletic and energetic. They are humorously sophisticated as they glide through ballroom dances without touching one another on “Please Don’t Touch Me,” and absolutely fabulous on the wild romp, “Transylvania Mania.”

The biggest hit of all is the tap-dance duet with Frankenstein and monster “Putting on the Ritz,” in a magical takeoff on Fred Astaire’s dance to the Irving Berlin song.

Director and choreographer Susan Stroman and co-writer Thomas Meehan both worked with Brooks on the film and stage versions of “The Producers,” as did leading man Roger Bart, who plays Dr. Frederick Frankenstein (which he says is pronounced Fronk-en-steen about a million times). Other leading roles are all played by Broadway, film and television stalwarts. Getting top billing along with Bart is Megan Mullally as Elizabeth, but the other leading lady, Sutton Foster as Inga, actually has a larger part. Foster, who has handled such demanding roles as Eponine in “Les Miserables” and Millie in “Thoroughly Modern Millie” on Broadway, shines most beautifully while frolicking and yodeling on the hayride song “Roll in the Hay.”
All of the stars fill their roles well, but none stand out. The bona fide standouts are Christopher Fitzgerald as Igor, Shuler Hensley as the monster and Andrea Martin as Frau Blucher.

The Paramount Theatre engagement is a pre-Broadway tryout. “Young Frankenstein” will open on Broadway at the Hilton Theatre Nov. 8 after preview performances beginning Oct. 11.

SIDEBAR: Young Frankenstein
WHEN: 7:30 8 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 2 p.m. Saturday, 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sunday through Sept. 1
WHERE: Paramount Theatre, 911 Pine St., Seattle
TICKETS: $25-$100

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