By Erin Fleming
After trying and failing to bring his creation to life, a frustrated young Dr. Frankenstein, grandson of the recently departed infamous scientist, calmly addresses his assistants, imparting this wisdom, “If science teaches us anything, it teaches us to accept our failures as well as our successes with quiet dignity and grace.”
Perhaps Art should learn a lesson from Science. When the original Broadway production of Young Frankenstein didn’t do well in 2007, it may have been best for the theater community to step away quietly and gracefully. However, fast forward to 2016, and two Chicago companies are trying their hand at producing the musical stage version of Mel Brooks’ campy 1974 spoof of classic horror films. Will this experiment be a success?
It’s a tricky business—translating a beloved film into a stage musical. After hitting such gold with his musical adaptation of The Producers, it’s easy to see why Brooks would try it again with Young Frankenstein. Unfortunately, as many a mad scientist will attest, that kind of lightning rarely strikes twice.
Young Frankenstein the musical is an uneven and head-scratching, unfunny adaptation which burdens its vaudevillian routines and iconic characters with a collection of mostly forgettable songs, also penned by Brooks. (Noted exceptions being Irving Berlin’s “Puttin’ On the Ritz” and Victor Herbert’s “Ah,Sweet Mystery of Life At Last I’ve Found You” which feature prominently in two of the film’s funniest bits and are included in the musical as well.) And it’s not that the lyrics aren’t funny. Who else but Brooks could write “Though your genitalia has been known to fail ya, you can bet your ass on the brain?” But the songs themselves are seem to be the contrived result of someone saying, “There should be a song here.”
The production at Metropolis tries hard—at times too hard—to maximize what does work about the book by Brooks and Thomas Meehan, but it’s a tough job bringing this monster to life. Fans of the film will happily recognize many of their favorite quotes and gags, including: “Walk this way,” “it’s pronounced Fronkensteeen,” and “Put.The.Candle.Back.” There’s also the schtick about Igor’s moving hump, the horses neighing at the mention of Frau Blucher, and the scene with the blind hermit spilling soup on the monster.
Almost every bit from the film is re-created in some way, and therein lies the problem. Most of the funny moments on film are just that, quick little asides or moments. But on stage the jokes hit too hard and linger too long—some drawn out into entire numbers, such as lab assistant Inga’s invitation to “Roll In The Hay,” and Frankenstein’s fiancee Elizabeth’s new, post-coital appreciation of “Deep Love.” Both numbers are basically a litany of dick jokes. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Listen, comedy is hard. And long. And deep. And so it goes, on like that, for close to three hours.
Dealing with all that, and often rising above it, are some wonderful comedic performers. It’s another particularly tough gig; taking on the iconic roles created by comic legends like Gene Wilder, Madeline Kahn and Cloris Leachman. Patrick Tierney nails the understated, broody mania of Dr. Frankenstein, and Sari Greenberg puts her own madcap spin on Elizabeth Benning, delivering the funniest and most enjoyable songs in the show (“Please Don’t Touch Me,” Surprise,” “Deep Love”). The one creative improvement upon the screenplay is the expansion of the role of Frau Blucher, which in this case treats the audience to lots more time with the hilarious Susan Wingerter. Her full frontal commitment to the absurd “He Vas My Boyfriend,” shows off her flawless timing.
The show’s length would be more of a liability if not for the ensemble’s high energy execution of Kristine Burdi’s outstanding choreography, which is a scene-saver throughout. Jimmy Capek, John Gurdian, Dan Hamman, Matthew Huston, Ryan Jozaitis, Joseph Kuchey, Kevin Laurerman, Allyssa O’Donnell, Kara Schoenhofer, Laura Sportiello, Monica Szaflik and Marissa Williams kick up their heels as angry villagers, medical students and a dozen other characters, really pulling out all the stops in tap shoes and top hats during “Putting On the Ritz.” Especially comedic turns are taken by Gurdian as the Inspector and Huston as Ziggy. Kuchey is the one to watch throughout—notably his stunning pirouettes and his fabulous Count Dracula.
This might be one adaptation that actually appeals more to newbies than it does to people who love the original film. Better to come with no expectations and enjoy it for what it offers as a stand alone experience, than to come wanting to see what works in the film reproduced on stage. (Also, the film runs under two hours.)
“Young Frankenstein” is presented by Metropolis Performing Arts Center, 111. W. Campbell St., Arlington Heights, through November 6. More information and tickets ($38) are available here.