By Barry Reszel
There’s a scene in Young Frankenstein, the movie and the musical, when the doctor reveals his creature, dead tissue reanimated to new life, to a frightenedly fascinated public seated in a theatre.
Cautiously, Dr. Frankenstein tells his creation, “Walk heel to toe.” Then like Pavolv, he gives a treat for compliance and again for doing it backwards. Fast forward the scene to the creature becoming a man about town complete with tux, tails, top hat, cane and a rousing duet of Irving Berlin’s “Puttin’ on the Ritz.”
The lesson here (in cut time because it’s a two-hour musical) is that one must first learn to walk before he can dance like Fred Astaire.
It’s a lesson smacking the fledgling non-Equity professional Lake Forest Theatre right in the face in its inaugural season productions, most currently with its presentation of Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein.
With cancellation of its original opening night, set and tech problems galore and cast outnumbering patrons in its third actual performance, it’s clear this company is still trying to put its arms around the enormity of a professional-quality monster of a production like Young Frankenstein.
That said, there are five glimmers of hope this company can make a phoenix-like emergence from the ashes and viably entertain Chicagoland patrons for years to come. (Anyone looking for a better understanding of the musical, Young Frankenstein, click here for a complete synopsis and production history.)
First is the company’s founder, managing director, show director and cast member (the blind hermit…just like Mel Brooks in the movie) Steve Malone. His enthusiasm and friendliness will go a long way toward Lake Forest Theatre’s ultimate success. He needs to acknowledge what he doesn’t know, then find and hire smart, talented and kind people who do.
Obviously able casting evidenced via the Young Frankenstein cast is glimmer point two. This is a young ensemble of terrific hoofers whose execution of the production numbers’ choreography is truly fine. Similarly, the leads are well cast with Sarah Larson‘s Inga a signature performance. Nick Miller as Dr. Frakenstein evokes memories of the recently deceased Gene Wilder. Edward MacLennan as the monster, Christie Burgess-Martino as Elizabeth, Peter Guidry as Igor and Gina Guarino as Frau Blucher (insert horse whinny sound effect here) are stellar.
Third is choreography and music. Cameron Turner‘s terrific work with the dance ensemble is evident and most professional. Similarly, John D. Cockerill and his band of seven additional musicians cover the score splendidly.
David Lundholm‘s excellent costuming (glimmer number four) would play on any professional stage. Sadly, it’s the only technical element for which that’s true. Sets are uninspired and often faulty. Vocals are muffled, and sound effects are too often a beat off (no innuendo implied, YF fans). Lighting is generally adequate but does nothing to enhance the production. Perhaps the tech problems stem from the absence of a stage manager and a technical director. And yes, things happen in live theatre; but these are the issues more typical of a community production and should not be this glaring in a professional company.
Finally, glimmer five is the performance space. Lake Forest’s newly renovated John and Nancy Hughes Theatre inside the Gorton Community Center is a lovely 200-seat proscenium venue, walking distance from the downtown train station and restaurants. While Malone’s vision ultimately calls for this company to build its own theatre space, this terrific setting might allow him to concentrate on other issues before embarking on a capital campaign.
It’s not completely honorable that Young Frankenstein‘s rights broker (Music Theatre International) sold simultaneous production rights to two professional companies just 20 miles apart (the show is also being done by Metropolis in Arlington Heights). But the number of empty seats in Lake Forest is more fairly explained by lack of reputation and marketing combined with a $49 ticket cost than it is anything else.
That said, the suggestion here is for Malone and his team (including his wonderfully buoyant cast) to paper the room with deep discounts and comps through the remainder of this run. These young people deserve a house to perform to and energy to feed their comedic timing.
It would go a long way to accomplishing a successful heel to toe walk and give hope the company’s next production, scheduled for March, really might be one singular sensation.
Lake Forest Theatre presents “Young Frankenstein” through October 30 at the John and Nancy Hughes Theatre, 400 East Illinois Road, Lake Forest. More information and tickets ($49) are available online here.