A Pell-Mel 'Young Frankenstein' at Kennedy Center Opera House

MONSTER HIT: Earlier missteps don't diminish "Puttin' On the Ritz's" joys in "Young Frankenstein."
MONSTER HIT: Earlier missteps don't diminish "Puttin' On the Ritz's" joys in "Young Frankenstein." (Paul Kolnik)
By Peter Marks
Friday, December 18, 2009

"Young Frankenstein" is the whoopee cushion of American musicals, an island of inanity in a sea of silly. Built by Mel Brooks to capitalize on the fond associations with his 1974 movie of the same title ("Frau Blucher" . . . "Neighhh!"), the show is a juvenile jaunt down memory lane, the kind of place where no joke about penis size goes untold.

You smile, even laugh, a little at the familiar gags that play out on the stage of the Kennedy Center Opera House: the migrating hump of excitable Igor (Cory English); the demand by the increasingly mad doctor (Roger Bart) that the name is pronounced "Frahnkenshteen," and best of all, the efforts by the clumsy Monster (the fabulous Shuler Hensley) to display Astaire-like savoir-faire in a black-tie sendup of "Puttin' On the Ritz."

Beyond the staging of key movie moments, though, "Young Frankenstein" is pretty lame stuff, a far lazier translation than composer Brooks and his co-librettist Thomas Meehan achieved with the priceless musical version of his subversive film comedy "The Producers." While the screwball score of Brooks's freshman megahit served the story grandly, the new songs concocted for "Young Frankenstein" sound curiously dashed-off, assembled from outdated do-it-yourself kits. That the post-coital number for the monster's new girlfriend (Beth Curry) late in the show is a paean to erectile endowment -- and titled "Deep Love" to boot -- provides evidence that a mandatory cap on phallic jokes should immediately be imposed.

It pains a Brooks fan to speak in any way less than worshipfully of a god of his childhood. In high school, my friends and I took turns quoting choice bits from his movies (and those of the other cinema deity, Woody Allen). This occurred in the Mesozoic Era of American comedy, before "Saturday Night Live" -- yes, such a time existed -- when Allen and Brooks were our mischief-makers in chief, unfolding anarchic styles that gave new, absurdist twists to the manic energy of the Borscht Belt.

It's great that after all these years, Brooks is still in the hunt, and that the performers of "Young Frankenstein" distill their share of that signature Brooksian commodity, barely contained hysteria. This makes all the more frustrating the limp transformation of his brilliant movie parody into a pandering, noisy smorgasbord of winks, leers and snickers.

The musical's touring production, directed and choreographed by Brooks's "Producers" collaborator, Susan Stroman, bears close resemblance to her version that closed on Broadway in January. Robin Wagner's scenery -- much of the show is set in the ghoulishly trendy suburb of Transylvania Heights -- gives the proceedings the look of a cheerful Saturday morning cartoon. Distressingly, one of the show's craftier technical effects, the video projection of a forest journey for the robust Act 1 number "Roll in the Hay," has not made it into the Opera House. Neither, alas, has actress Sutton Foster, whose acrobatics gave the song a kind of all-American sizzle. (Her successor, Anne Horak, sings prettily, even if there's a deficiency here of comedic impact.)

Only Bart, the memorable originator of Carmen Ghia in "The Producers," and Hensley, who won a Tony as Jud in the Broadway revival of "Oklahoma!" some years back, re-create their lead roles from the original company of "Young Frankenstein," and one hopes both are making a ton of money. Bart, who has that gift of seeming at once ironically detached from and charmingly engaged in acts of dementedness, puts his own stamp on a role that for decades belonged exclusively to Gene Wilder.

Under padding and green makeup, Hensley still creates a fully fleshed-out character; somehow even the jerky limb movements convey something endearingly human. His physicality, balletic in its ungainliness, fuels the musical's funniest sequence, which the actor performs in tandem with the exceedingly well used Brad Oscar. It's the scene in which the blind hermit, played by Oscar, has his prayers for companionship answered when the monster bursts into his cottage, and a series of classic slapstick bits ensue.

For long stretches, however, "Young Frankenstein" feels as if it is lurching from one ill-conceived number to the next. "The Brain," for instance, is a wooden ditty introducing us to the doctor; "Please Don't Touch Me" is a stilted dockside song for Curry's Elizabeth, having to do with her premarital vow of chastity. The generic "Transylvania Mania," meanwhile, is a weak production number that sends us uncertainly into intermission.

Things do percolate more entertainingly in Act 2, primarily because the momentum is all about getting to "Puttin' On the Ritz," the number in which Bart's Frankenstein shows off his monster to the public. Of course, the sequence has been lifted completely from the film -- another sign that the musical is, like Frankenstein's experiment, an iffy act of reanimation.

Young Frankenstein

music and lyrics by Mel Brooks, book by Brooks and Thomas Meehan. Directed and choreographed by Susan Stroman. Sets, Robin Wagner; costumes, William Ivey Long; lighting, Peter Kaczorowski; sound, Jonathan Deans; music direction, Robert Billig; orchestrations, Doug Besterman. With Joanna Glushak, Jennifer Smith. About 2 hours 35 minutes. Through Jan. 10 at John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. Visit http://www.kennedy-center.org or call 202-467-4600.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company