Theater Review: YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN (La Mirada Theatre)

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by Tony Frankel on September 21, 2022

in Theater-Los Angeles

A BRAINDEAD MUSICAL REANIMATED TO GLORIOUS LIFE

In 2007, the Mel Brooks musical Young Frankenstein opened on Broadway to largely dismissive reviews. Some say it opened too close on the heels of Brooks’s powerhouse, The Producers. But when the touring version visited Los Angeles years later with original star Roger Bart imitating the film’s star and co-writer, Gene Wilder, it was indeed pretty much a clunker. It felt like a carbon copy musicalization transferred to three dimensions and losing its soul in translation.

A.J. Holmes (center) stars with the companyA.J. Holmes (center) with the company

Brooks based the musical on his glorious motion picture parody of the Frankenstein movies of the 1930s. The stage version follows the film closely, retaining most of the Brooksian facetiousness and drollery, not to mention enough sexual double entendres to make the mind reel. Hilarious at times,  but too often spelling and dragging out sight gags the movie deftly discharged quickly and cleanly.

A.J. Holmes and Wesley SladeA.J. Holmes and Wesley Slade

On top of that (don’t worry, I’m getting to the good stuff soon), some songs overstayed their welcome, elaborated from five-second zingers in the film: the blind Hermit’s “Please Send Me Someone,” is especially repetitive. The idea of a running joke is to hit and run, not stay and bore. Over and over I silently thought, “I get it! I get it!”

Maggie Ek, A.J. Holmes and Wesley Slade

So do you see why my expectations were not high for the revival presented at the La Mirada Theatre? But after bathing in more than two hours of almost continuous delight, you might exit the theater speculating that if the New York production was as good as this one, the show might still be running in the Big Apple.

Gregory North (center) with the companyThe company

Director Jeff Whiting and choreographer James Gray — recreating Susan Stroman‘s original staging — are presenting the Southern California premiere of the newly revised, London version. Stroman and Brooks, along with late co-writer Thomas Meehan, reworked the show for this new incarnation. Changes include revisions to dialogue and lyrics with some songs from the original cut, and two new numbers added.

Wesley Slade, Sally Struthers, A.J. Holmes, and Maggie Ek

What you have here are actors who are each performing at the top of their game. These leads are some of the most hard-working and multi-talented actors that I have ever seen, especially in the comedy department, offering industrial-strength vaudeville, hilarious at times — delivering the shtick, schlock and dreck on time and as needed. And boy oh boy do they sell the songs, not an easy feat given that the music and lyrics by Mr. Brooks are schmaltzy and silly, ranging from town hall beer-clinking waltzes to simple send-ups of ballads.

A.J. Holmes and Trent Mills

Well-respected brain surgeon Frederick Frankenstein (pronounced “Fronk-en-steen”) is the American descendant of the original doctor who created the monster. Frederick goes to Transylvania to settle his recently deceased ancestor’s estate and is lured into taking up the scientist’s obsession with bringing a dead man to life, assembling him with assorted cadaver parts. Urged on by a hunchbacked sidekick, Igor (pronounced “Eye-gore”), a leggy lab assistant, Inga (pronounced Inga) — who not only wants to roll in the hay in the back of a cart, but oddly performs a big number doing it — and Frau Blücher, the deadpan housekeeper who shacked up with Frederick’s grandfather. When the decision is made to experiment on a dead corpse (is there any other kind?), Igor gets the wrong brain, the reanimated monster escapes, Frederick’s fiancée Elizabeth shows up at the castle, and Transylvania inspector Kemp, who lost an arm and a leg when he was attacked by Victor Frankenstein’s Monster, hunts the new deformed creature down.

Wesley Slade, A.J. Holmes, and Maggie Ek

To say that A.J. Holmes is delightful as Frederick is an understatement. I tell you, it’s tough to keep your eyes off of him just for his man-about-town facial expressions. In addition, his amazingly powerful voice and and sly dancing knocked me out. His knockout take on the patter song “The Brain” is classic. The physically dexterous Wesley Slade brings life to Igor with as much nuance as a Mack truck — his improv skills are astounding (he even calls two horses “McCoy” and “Rigby” after the show’s producers). Quite impressive with his vocal variety is Gregory North, who not only gives us a blustery Kemp, but plays the soup-spilling Hermit in a scene with rubber-faced Trent Mills as the monster which stops the show — their timing is unsurpassed. Maggie Ek as Inga is stunningly gorgeous with a strong ringing voice; she yodels up a storm and offers the best example of dancing that is lithe and powerful. OK, she drops her accent in songs and is still sharpening her timing, but I dare you to keep your eyes off her tits, knockers, – those gams!

Sarah Wolter (center) and company

And then there is Sarah Wolter nailing prudish fiancée Elizabeth’s “Please Don’t Touch Me,” and the blatant penis anthem “Deep Love.” To make these repetitive songs fly, she adds nuance to these tunes while reminding us that she is the brassiest belter in the land. Above all is Sally Struthers (yes, “Gloria” from All in the Family) as Frau Blücher — she takes one of the silliest songs in the show, “He Vas My Boyfriend,” grabs a bistro chair and then channels Marlene Dietrich and a bawdy Kit Kat Club slut to bring down the house. I applaud Casting Director Lindsay Brooks. And every number is backed by a huge orchestra tightly led by Benet Braun, never overpowering the players. (Sound Design by Philip G. Allen.)

A.J. Holmes, Wesley Slade and Maggie Ek (center) star with the companyA.J. Holmes, Wesley Slade and Maggie Ek (center) with the company 

This is also a monster of a show to run backstage. The scenes change as fast as there is a new gag — and the changes are seamless thanks to Stage Manager John W. Calder, III. With Robin Wagner‘s original scenic design we get an Ocean Liner, laboratory (the awesome pyrotechnics by Eric S. Elias actually got applause), train station, country house, Broadway spectacle (phenomenal lighting by Jared A. Sayeg), and more. Plus a huge chorus of hoofers. Maggie Hofmann and Erika Senase‘s perfect costumes are coordinated by Donna McNaughton, the wigs and hair are by Kaitlin Yagen, and the awesome props are courtesy of Kevin Williams. I’d say this is La Mirada’s biggest show in decades.

Trent Mills and Gregory North

The best number is Irving Berlin’s “Puttin’ on the Ritz,” the public domain song (also used in an iconic scene from the movie) in which Frederick shows off his kinder, gentler monster to the public. An excellent new Glen Kelly arrangement (with Doug Besterman’s swinging-brass orchestrations) has nearly the entire cast tapping their cares away, including the leads, who more than hold their own with the leggy chorus.

Trent Mills (center) with the company

It may be time to reassess the merits of Young Frankenstein as a musical. The Brooks score scintillates with wit and verbal surprises, especially in the speed-of-sound patter songs. The man does have a dazzling facility with lyrics. His quirky humor tickles the funny bone and yet the show isn’t all jokes. There is substance to the book in its homage to horror movies, and the off-the-wall characters command the stage with a comic brilliance that makes the show an uninterrupted pleasure from first scene to final blackout. It’s the sweetest shock of all when these stage artists at La Mirada exceed the New York breed of performers in skills and inspiration and just plain quality. Plus, you’ll laugh your ass off. See Young Frankenstein and then ask, “Who needs Broadway?”

Sarah Wolter (center)

photos by Jason Niedle

Young Frankenstein
La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts
14900 La Mirada Blvd. in La Mirada
Thurs at 7:30; Fri at 8; Sat at 2 & 8; Sun at 1:30 & 6:30
ends on October 9, 2022
for tickets, call 562.944.9801 or visit La Mirada Theatre

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