YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN THEATRE REVIEW
This critic usually reviews plays with deep social, psychological and philosophical significance, such as A Noise Within’s Animal Farm, Orwell’s satire about the revolution betrayed in Russia; Deaf West Theatre’s mounting of the Greek tragedy Oedipus at the Getty Villa; and Antaeus’ Everybody, an adaptation of the Christian morality play Everyman, about the meaning of life. I appreciated all of these quality productions but by far the most enjoyable work I’ve had the good fortune to experience this year is Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein, a musical comedy without any deep political, Freudian or existential messages.
Spurred on by the runaway success of 1974’s brilliant, hysterically funny Blazing Saddles, which lampooned Westerns, that same year the indomitable, hilarious Mel Brooks unleashed another genre spoof, Young Frankenstein, which poked fun at horror movies. Brooks did to Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel Frankenstein and James Whale’s 1931 classic screen version what the title character mad scientist did to the various body parts grave robbers smuggled into Dr. Frankenstein’s laboratory, where he gave the newly formed creature life. The co-writer/director transformed a spooky story into a laugh-a-minute, irresistible romp that was another boffo box office hit in 1974.
In 2007 Brooks revived the movie’s decomposed corpse, so to speak, bringing it back to life, adding lyrics and music Mel composed, with a book he co-wrote with Thomas Meehan (and, lest we forget, the overlooked Mary Shelley, who is lamentably uncredited in the playbill). In resurrecting Young Frankenstein as a stage musical, Brooks had been inspired by the success he had reviving his 1967 film The Producers as a long running Broadway musical in 2001, that was a smash hit on the Great White Way.
Which brings us to the current glorious production presented by the La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts and McCoy Rigby Entertainment, which features All in the Family co-star Sally Struthers as Frau Blücher (cue the stallions!). This show perfectly translates the screen iteration of Young Frankenstein for the stage, and the live theater version is enhanced by Brooks’ songs, wonderfully sung by the cast and performed by a 10-person orchestra (musical direction by Benet Braun). Visually, this theatrical edition also does justice to James Whale’s stylishly cinematic monster thriller starring Boris Karloff, that set the template for countless creature features to come. Whale’s perfectly, brilliantly shot scene wherein the cadaver is raised on high in the lab is faithfully rendered onstage and exciting to behold in person. About 14 often rapid scene changes (based on an original scenic design by Robin Wagner) imbue the stage play with a cinematic zest and pace.
The 75-year-old Sally Struthers struts her stuff admirably as the housekeeper and does Cloris Leachman, who portrayed Frau Blücher (cue the horses!) in the 1974 madcap movie, proud. The rest of the large cast that joins the two-time Emmy Award-winning Ms. Struthers in the 1,262-seat theater likewise excel and regale the audience, which was sold out on opening night, with song, dance and mirthfulness. A special standout is Wesley Slade as the endlessly daffy, delightful Igor. Slade is no stranger to portraying characters with humps, as he starred as Quasimodo in a stage edition of The Hunchback of Notre Dame, which he was a BroadwayWorld Award Winner for.
A.J. Holmes reprises his role as Frederick Frankenstein, which he initially played in a 2011 national tour of Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein. Holmes is extremely workmanlike (in the very best sense of the term) as the mad scientist, without missing a note or a beat, and also co-starred in The Book of Mormon on Broadway and the West End. Sarah Wolter endows her role as Frederick’s game playing, cockteasing girlfriend Elizabeth with the comic panache of a veteran of the Groundlings and Second City. Maggie Ek is wink-wink winsome as the buxom blonde Transylvanian trollop and temptress Inga, the lab assistant from heaven.
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Some may skewer Mel Brooks and his musical for being sexist. There is a song that rhapsodizes about, and I quote, “Tits!” The (more or less) virginal Elizabeth goes gaga over the gigantic Monster’s (Trent Mills, who is no stranger to green creatures, having previously played Shrek in the musical stage version of the animated feature) anatomy, which was stitched together with various body parts. (BTW, pay close attention to how once she encounters the Monster, Elizabeth’s hair changes color and texture, increasingly resembling Elsa Lanchester’s hairdo in James Whale’s 1935 sequel The Bride of Frankenstein. Kudos to wig/hair/makeup designer Kaitlin Yagen, as well as costumers Erika Senase and Maggie Hofmann.)
A recurring theme throughout Brooks’ show is the characters’ libido, whether thwarted or fulfilled. The musical is full of sexual innuendo, lyrics and quips, and even though there is no graphic nudity and sex acts per se, Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein is not for the kiddies. It’s not for this reviewer to say whether or not Brooks and his play is sexist, but before passing judgment one should keep in mind that Mel relishes harpooning tropes and genre conventions. Perhaps, instead of being a male chauvinist, Brooks is playfully puncturing gender roles and stereotypes, just as he tackled cliches of cowboy, outer space, swashbuckler, Hitchcock, horror and other movie categories in his various cinematic spoofs. But this is in the eye of the beholder. (BTW, there is also a nod to gays via a minor character named Felix played by Ryan Perry Marks.)
Some of Mel’s movies have had underlying serious themes. In 1967’s The Producers the Jewish comic genius mercilessly mocked Hitler and the Nazis (as well as, I guess, Broadway itself), while 1974’s Blazing Saddles deals extensively with racism. To be sure, this show does have villagers with pitchforks and is mostly set in Eastern Europe, but no Clifford Odets-like proletarian drama this. So, what is the point of Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein?
For about 130 minutes, this two-acter with one intermission gave me a wall-to-wall smile. As the hoofers were “Puttin’ on the Ritz” in dance numbers craftily choreographed by James Gray, all of the inspired insanity made me feel glad to be alive in a way few other productions have, if only to be able to behold such merry madcap mayhem. Director Jeff Whiting’s briskly helmed, well-crafted concoction imparts, from curtain to curtain, evokes an irrepressible sense of joie de vivre. And this emotion of the joy of life, imparted by a Brooksian zaniness, is not to be underestimated. Especially in the dark times we have been living through.
As Preston Sturges noted in 1941’s Sullivan’s Travels, laughter should not be undervalued, and Mel’s musical comedy provides a refuge and respite from the current slings and arrows we’re surviving, and in doing so, to use a very Frankenstein analogy, it recharges our batteries. At times this musical may make you feel the same exaltation as when the electrified creature stirs and Dr. Frankenstein exults with sheer glee: “He’s alive!” This play, too, may make you feel very intensely alive. And there is great redeeming social value in that.
One should experience the must-see Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein simply to have an uproarious good time, from beginning to end. There are few if any better gifts one can purchase for the price of a ticket. So put on those Frankenstein boots and “walk this way” to La Mirada for an evening of nonstop merriment and bedazzlement.
Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein is being performed 7:30 p.m. on Thursdays; 8:00 p.m. on Fridays; 2:00 p.m. and 8:00 p.m. on Saturdays; and 1:30 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. on Sundays through Oct. 9 at La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts, 14900 La Mirada Blvd., La Mirada, CA. For info see: www.lamiradatheatre.com or call (562) 944-9801 or (714) 994-6310.