By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 9, 2007
NEW YORK -- It's Mel Brooks, for goodness' sake, so of course you laugh. And sometimes you even laugh hard, especially when a patented zany like Andrea Martin, in the guise here of steed-scaring Frau Blücher ("NEE-II-GG--HH!"), is clutching a candelabra and warning that the castle stairs are "trrrrrrrrrreacherous."
And yet Brooks's eagerly awaited musical version of "Young Frankenstein," which opened last night at the Hilton Theatre, is such a teeter-tottering patchwork of slipshod gags, recycled dance routines and tinny tunes that even some of the better material ends up feeling a bit shrill and hollow.
Maybe hopes for "Young Frankenstein" were inflated by the record-breaking success of Brooks's only other Broadway musical, his heavenly adaptation of "The Producers," which at the 2001 Tony Awards took home everything except Radio City's upholstered seats. As with his new show, "The Producers" merrily and shamelessly lifted the best stuff from a movie of the same title, which was no crime because Brooks was the mad genius behind them, as well.
Still, the stage version of "The Producers" was jet-propelled by a savvy showmanship that grasped the need for a palette of songs that did more than add G clefs to Brooks's antic shtick. It also hummed thanks to the precision casting of Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick, Cady Huffman and Brad Oscar, Gary Beach and Roger Bart, all of whom could plug gleefully into the same socket of Brooksian low-denominator comedy.
Bart has been recruited again, this time for the comic leading-man role of Frederick Frankenstein, played by Gene Wilder to deliriously demented effect in the 1974 movie. Here, Bart seems untethered to anything -- a scattered, lackluster contribution that's emblematic of the erratic evening "Young Frankenstein" turns out to be. His Frankenstein, unfortunately, is closer to mild-mannered Park Avenue internist than freakish dreamer of a better reanimated life through chemistry. From his anemic opening med-school number "The Brain" to his final embrace with the comely blond love of his life, this sedate Dr. F. exists in a far more confined comedic space than an outrageous spoof calls for.
The unevenness extends to director Susan Stroman's guidance of some other pivotal roles, particularly the misused Megan Mullally as Frederick's lockjawed society dame of a fiancee. The part is a bad fit for Mullally -- as are, surprisingly, William Ivey Long's unflattering costumes -- and she is forced to try to justify her presence with exaggerated swanning and diction. As with Bart, songwriter Brooks introduces Mullally's Elizabeth (the peerless Madeline Kahn in the movie) with a lifeless number, "Please Don't Touch Me," that seems as if it would better suit a "Carol Burnett Show" sendup of "No, No, Nanette."
Although the warm-and-fuzzy Igor of Christopher Fitzgerald is efficient -- he, too, gets a disappointing Act 1 solo, "Together Again" -- the proceedings do not juice up until the arrival of Sutton Foster as Frankenstein's earthy laboratory aide-de-nooky, Inga. Her song, "Roll in the Hay," offers the first taste of what the show might have been. From the back of a horse-drawn cart, Foster dexterously contorts and undulates and yodels her way through a funny preamble to temptation. A dark forest flashes inventively past, as the actor-horses strain hilariously against the reins.
Fans of the movie know whose name will soon enough set the steeds a-neighing. Martin, one of the funniest people on Earth, is the one true natural in the production -- Shuler Hensley, as a monster groomed for stardom, is a close second -- and she almost always gets the proper mileage. The joke at the expense of Martin's ramrod housekeeper ("Blücher!" "Nee-ii-gg-hh!") is one that keeps on giving, and sure enough, Brooks and co-librettist Thomas Meehan keep on partaking.
"Young Frankenstein" is meant to thrive on the cheapness of its humor, and some of the bits do work. The monster's visit to the cottage of a kindly and thoroughly accident-prone blind man (Fred Applegate) ably summons the ghost of slapstick past; a moment as transparent as Igor slipping a corpse by the village constable is pitched successfully for laughs. The rousing soft-shoe climax, danced by the monster here as in the movie to Irving Berlin's "Puttin' on the Ritz," proves to be fine, slick parody, too.
Robin Wagner's sets, especially the gewgaw- and tube-laden laboratory, imbue the production with the appealing veneer of a lavishly appointed Broadway show. But any of the polished accouterments are upstaged by casting miscues, wan choreography and the relentlessly second-rate score. Ensemble numbers such as "He's Loose" and "Join the Family Business" -- the latter a shambles of a dream sequence -- leave the impression of being poured onto the stage like this-and-that ingredients of a chopped salad.
Idolaters of the Brooks mystique might find the evening sufficiently silly. Many others, though, will be scratching their heads, wondering how the jokes could have come to be spread so thin. So if what matters to you is bang for your entertainment buck, don't be surprised if the musical-comedy ballistics of "Young Frankenstein" seem designed less for a cannon than for a BB gun.
Young Frankenstein, music and lyrics by Mel Brooks; book by Brooks and Thomas Meehan. Directed and choreographed by Susan Stroman. Lighting, Peter Kaczorowski; orchestrations, Doug Besterman; sound, Jonathan Deans; special effects, Marc Brickman; music director, Patrick S. Brady. About 2 1/2 hours. At Hilton Theatre, 213 W. 42nd St., New York. Call 212-307-4100 or visit http://www.ticketmaster.com.