Sunday, August 19, 2007

Young Frankenstein Comes to Life in Seattle

Mel Brooks has said that “Young Frankenstein” was his best film. I tend to agree. And I can now say that Young Frankenstein the Musical is his best show. I got to see it yesterday in Seattle where it is in previews before moving to Broadway in October. A friend suddenly found herself with two extra tickets and invited my daughter Emma and me to go with her and her daughter.

As a huge fan of the original movie, I can state with conviction that the new musical, currently at The Paramount theatre in Seattle through September 1, is everything one could hope for, and more. Like the stage adaptation of “The Producers,” the musical version of “Young Frankenstein” is both a faithful reproduction of the film and a unique musical theatre experience. From the minute the orchestra starts playing the overture—with lightning flashing on the huge curtain painted with an image of Castle Frankenstein—you sense that you’re about to experience something fun and magical.

Act One opens in Transylvania Heights, a village in Transylvania in 1934, with the villagers celebrating the death of the dreaded Dr. Victor von Frankenstein (Frankenstein is Dead/The Happiest Town in Town), led by Fred Applegate as Inspector Kemp (who I last saw as Max Bialystock in the London production of “The Producers”). Things quickly move to a medical school in New York City, where we first meet Dr. Frederick Frankenstein (that’s pronounced “Fronkensteen”), wonderfully played by Roger Bart (he played Bette Midler’s gay friend in the 2004 remake of “The Stepford Wives”). While There is Nothing Like the Brain is a clever number (and the scene faithfully recreates the bit from the movie where Gene Wilder knees the old man in the groin), things really haven’t started moving yet.

Next, we meet Frederick’s socialite fiancée Elizabeth (Megan Mullally), who comes to see him off at Hudson River Pier 57. With last minute passengers boarding the ship (yes, there’s a ship on stage, and Elizabeth utters Madeline Kahn’s great one-liner “Taffeta, darling.”), Elizabeth and the other voyagers sing Please Don’t Touch Me.

But once Frankenstein arrives at the railroad station in Transylvania (“Pardon me boy. Is this the Transylvania station.”), the show jumps into high gear and never downshifts. With Christopher Fitzgerald practically channeling Marty Feldman’s Igor, he and Bart sing Together Again for the First Time. I’d like to say that it’s one of my favorite songs in the show, but then I’d contradict myself by saying that about several others. Suffice it to say that it’s the first one that made me grin from ear to ear, a grin that never went away thereafter.

Next, we meet Inga, the sexy Transylvanian girl who signs on as Frederick’s lab assistant (played stunningly by Sutton Foster). In the first tour de force of staging, the hay wagon really appears to be pulled through the forest by a pair of horses as Inga sings Roll in the Hay. And of course, the scene includes the exchange between Inga, Igor, and Frankenstein: “Werewolf? There. What? There wolf. There, castle.” The arrival at Castle Frankenstein is filled with all of the great lines from the movie —the horses bray every time they hear the name of housekeeper Frau Blucher, Frederick utters the double-entendre “what knockers” while staring at Inga’s breasts, and before retiring for the night, Frau Blucher offers Frederick “a brandy before retiring? Some varm milk perhaps? Ovaltine?”—but it’s the production number Join the Family Business that simply wows the audience. Under Susan Stroman’s incredible direction and choreography and fantastic scenery and lighting design, somehow the castle walls actually dissolve and Frederick finds himself in his grandfather’s laboratory.

Then there’s the recreation of the scene with the hidden entry to the laboratory (“Put…ze candle…back”) and the discovery of Frau Blucher playing weird violin music, leading to another of my favorite numbers. Asked how exactly did she know his grandfather, Frau Blucher (played to perfection by Andrea Martin from "My Big Fat Greek Wedding and SCTV fame) sings He Vas My Boyfriend.

I could keep on going. There’s the famous laboratory scene in which the monster (Shuler Hensley) is brought to life, and plenty more songs just in Act One, which concludes with a real show stopping song and dance number Transylvania Mania.

And things don’t slow down after the intermission either. The monster gets loose. There’s the great scene between the monster and the hermit (played by Fred Applegate, who in this scene looks strikingly similar to Gene Hackman in the movie), including all of those great bits (but missing the line “I was going to make Espresso”).

Frederick and Igor recapture the monster. And then there’s the big second act number Puttin’ On the Ritz. I’d compare this to the dance number in “The Producers” with all of the old women dancing with their walkers. It’s a great expansion on what was just a short scene in the original movie version of “Young Frankenstein” and it works perfectly.

Suffice it to say, I loved the show. I think it’s going to be a huge hit on Broadway. Buy your tickets now, because if I’m correct, they’re soon going to be very hard to come by.

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