Chicago Theater Review: YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN (Drury Lane Theatre in Oakbrook Terrace)

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by Lawrence Bommer on January 24, 2014

in Theater-Chicago


A ton of fun gets dumped in this calculated musical spinoff from Mel Brooks’ funniest film. As with The Producers, Brooks’ expanded version of Young Frankenstein (with his own songs) was repackaged as a merry musical by director/choreographer Susan Strohman in 2007. No gags got left behind; there are at least ten yucks every twenty minutes in the jokey book co-written with Thomas Meehan. Happily enough, William Osetek’s pile-driving revival for Drury Lane Productions delivers the shtick, schlock and dreck on time and as needed.

Scott Calcagno and Ensemble

But if you love the 1974 movie, you may only like the musical: Comparisons to The Producers (2001) do not necessarily favor Young Frankenstein, a celluloid-to-stage knockoff that Brooks clearly and wrongly hoped would equal its predecessor’s colossal success. The 1974 movie is a spoof, not a satire, and it’s specific as well: a black-and-white film parodying an earlier classic, James Whales’ Frankenstein with Boris Karloff. A spoof of a spoof, alas, is not a spoof; it’s a carbon copy “musicalization” transferred to three dimensions and losing its soul in translation. The Producers was justifiable–even more in fact than the film version—because it trashes and travesties show business.

Paula Scrofano, Jeff Dumas, Travis Taylor, Devin DeSantis, Allison Sill

The musical at hand is a textbook case of fanaticism; it forgets its end in order to redouble its means. The targeted 1931 Universal picture is all but eclipsed by 150 minutes of industrial-strength vaudeville, hilarious at times but too often spelling and dragging out sight gags the movie deftly discharged quickly and cleanly. Overstaying their welcome, five entire songs get elaborated from five-second zingers in the film: Inga’s salacious “Roll in the Hay,” Frau Blücher’s “He Vas My Boyfriend,” the blind Hermit’s “Please Send Me Someone,” prudish fiancée Elizabeth’s “Please Don’t Touch Me,” and the blatant penis anthem “Deep Love.” The idea of a running joke is to hit and run, not stay and bore. Over and over you want to plead, “I get it! I get it!” (The ending here in particular is, well, endless.)

Johanna McKenzie Miller and Ensemble

Yes, a few songs, like Frederick Frankenstein’s “The Brain” and “Join the Family Business” actually carry their own comic weight, while “Transylvania Mania” provides the obligatory first act finale/production number. But the best songs here, also from the film, are not by Brooks: Victor Herbert’s “Ah Sweet Mystery of Life (At Last I’ve Found You)” and Irving Berlin’s “Puttin’ on the Ritz.” On stage, the latter totally misses the joke: It’s supposed to be a “fish out of water” disconnect, with the hideous monster turning Broadway sophisticate, not a top hat-and-tux kick line that fudges the fun.

Devin DeSantis, Travis Taylor

Besides the screen-to-stage shrinkage, a deeper problem facing the musical is to find performers as totally right for their roles as Gene Wilder, Gene Hackman, Madeline Kahn, Teri Garr, Cloris Leachman, Peter Boyle and Marty Feldman. Of course, that ain’t gonna happen. That killer combination will never come again. Lightning won’t strike twice and it if ain’t broke…

Devin DeSantis, Travis Taylor and Cast

Osetek has to settle for hopefully inspired imitations that are forcibly funny, instead of gut-busting at their creation. Three come close to their source—Paula Scofano’s wickedly sardonic castle keeper Frau Blücher, Travis Taylor’s born-again being, a.k.a. Monster, and Jeff Dumas’ goofy Igor. But the closer Devin DeSantis tries to replicate Wilder’s patented instant hysteria, the more it’s an act. Bad burlesque as Inga, Allison Sill climbed right out of a pinup calendar and is just as dimensional. Johanna Miller can’t manage Elizabeth’s two faces. Scott Calcagano, given double-duty in two roles, shamelessly indicates and telegraphs all the sight gags: His Hermit is so obvious that the joke involving spilled hot soup in the Monster’s crotch dies in advance, and his irate lynch mob leader Inspector Kemp is as funny as the character’s prosthetic arm (if you hit too hard, you ruin the punchline).

Devin DeSantis, Jeff Dumas, Allison Sill

But, no question, the opening night Oakbrook Terrace audience never met a joke they didn’t love. You can’t say they were tricked into their guffaws; they meant every gut-busting yuck. If laughter is a currency that can never be watered, Young Frankenstein spends it both wastefully and winningly.

Scott Calcagnophotos by Brett Beiner

Young Frankenstein
Drury Lane Theatre in Oakbrook Terrace
scheduled to end on March 16, 2014
for tickets, call 630.530.0111
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