One of my favorite quotes ever was a wife’s lovely tribute to her husband – “I get excited when I hear his key in the door. It’s like ‘Ooh! The party’s going to start.’” Quick – any idea who said it? The enamored wife was the wonderful late Anne Bancroft, and the mate to whom she referred, of course, was the extraordinary Mel Brooks.
To close out our musical month of November, we had long-held tickets for Mel Brooks’ new stage version of “Young Frankenstein” – a musical adaptation of his 1974 screen creation. To be blunt, I was less “whelmed” than I thought I’d be.
Don’t get me wrong. There is no one who comes even remotely close to Mel Brooks in elevating high schtick to an art form. His writing, directing and producing work stands alone within the genre, and as far as acting, he more than deserved the three Emmys he earned with his creation and performance of “Uncle Phil” on NBC’s Mad About You.
But this show seemed to be a real stretch of the formula. There were a few side-splitting moments, and the performances of (60-year-old!) Andrea Martin as Frau Blucher (neighhhhh!) and Christopher Fitzgerald as Igor (Hump? Vhat hump?) were hilariously brilliant. Several musical numbers, most notably “Please Don’t Touch Me” and “He Vas My Boyfriend,” brought down the house. The big song and dance number – “Puttin’ on the Ritz” – was appropriately funny and respectably done, and the high-budget set and effects were impressive.
But much of the rest of the production felt forced and oversold. Like they wrote a superb first draft, but found it only ran an hour and fifteen, so they had to come up with a few more throw-away songs, some additional irrelevant lines and scenes, a dozen new gags and innuendos upon which to pause for the requisite laughter. There were far too many “wait for it” moments, when you knew what was coming, but the actor would pause for a second too long and make you wait for the inevitable punchline.
Most interesting to me was that the show began exactly the same way as the current Broadway smash, “Wicked,” – with a joyful expression of the death of a feared and despised villager (the Witch of the West in “Wicked” and Dr. Victor von Frankenstein here). And the final scene was performed under an enormous illuminated moon, replicating the conclusion of another Broadway hit, “Mamma Mia.” It all made for a fairly forgettable evening, and a palpably under-energized audience.
Roger Bart was fine as Dr. Frankenstein (“that’s FRONK-en-STEEN”), and Sutton Foster was particularly funny as Inga. I found Shuler Hensley’s Monster, however, to be lackluster. And what about the most well-known of the cast, Megan Mullally? Her performance was inconsistent in my opinion, and it seemed like she fell back into her Will and Grace Karen Walker character when she needed laughs. I’m not sure anyone could succeed in the Elizabeth role though – trying to break out any role originally created by the incomparable late Madeline Kahn, is nearly impossible.
Similarly, there was no way Mel Brooks was going follow up his smash Broadway debut of “The Producers” with anything remotely as phenomenal. Lightening usually only strikes once – and this time he had to use the special effects to create the lightening. Literally.