Review: Young Frankenstein at the Kennedy Center

If Mel Brooks can make a hit Broadway musical from his 1968 movie The Producers, then he should be able to do the same with his much more popular 1974 movie Young Frankenstein, right? Just in case the idea was not a good one, to even the odds why not add your wife and the famous choreographer Susan Stroman to direct and choreograph the show as she did in The Producers?

As they say, lightning never strikes the same place twice, so the odds were always long that Young Frankenstein would do as well as the phenomenally successful musical version of The Producers. That is the case with Young Frankenstein, at least the touring version now in the Opera House at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. There are times when you wonder if it was directed by Max Bialystock, the infamous bad musical producer immortalized in The Producers rather than Susan Stroman. Okay, it’s not that bad and the truth is the musical gets better as it goes along, and it ends pretty well. Young Frankenstein though is certainly not great, and I have a hard time even giving it a passing grade. It bears the mark of a musical that was made simply because it could be made and not because there was any compelling reason to stage it.

In a way, seeing such a crass musical in the ornate setting of the Kennedy Center’s Opera House lowered my opinion of the Kennedy Center. After all, I have seen many a lavish staging of a musical or opera on this stage, perhaps most memorably a staging of Tosca by the Met back in the mid 1980s. In an exhibit as you enter the Opera House, you can see one of the exquisite gowns from that staging. However, you take your seats to watch a musical with no pretense at being high art but that is high on the things that Mel Brooks thinks is funny but which are really incredibly sophomoric. These include cute women in dresses with low bodices and high libidos and allusions to the monster’s massive sexual organs.

None of this is a surprise to those who have seen the movie. In fact, the musical really adds nothing new to the movie at all and is rife with the same gags that were in the movie. What you don’t get of course is Gene Wilder as Young Frankenstein, Madeleine Kahn as his puritanical fiancé Elizabeth, Marty Feldman as Igor, Cloris Leachman as Frau Blücher or Teri Garr as the bosomy lab assistant Inga.

Instead, you get a generally good cast working with substandard material. For example, you will find Brad Oscar (who was a regular in The Producers on Broadway) in the rather minor role of Inspector Kemp. Roger Bart plays the young Doctor Frankenstein, and comes across as more of a wisecracker than Gene Wilder’s portrayal. Most of the rest of the cast seems to be working hard to imitate the characters in the filmed version, and this includes Beth Curry as Elizabeth and Joanna Glushak as Frau Blücher. We do get some variations. Cory English as Igor does not even attempt to emulate Marty Feldman. Peter Boyle played the original monster in 1974. In this version, we get Shuler Hensley who, film critics may note, has played Frankenstein before in the 2004 film Van Helsing.

As you might expect there are strobe lights aplenty, a mad scientist’s workshop decently rendered and theatrical fog in some of the sequences. As for the music, sadly, there is really nothing memorable. Since we go to musicals mostly to hear music, the musical cannot help but disappoint.

The musical only has a few things going for it. First, Roger Bart is rather fun in the pivotal role of Young Frankenstein. Second, if you can make it to the second act you will find it is much better than the first act, but not enough to redeem it altogether. The most surprising actor in this musical is none other than Shuler Hensley. Unfortunately, the monster does not really have a chance to graduate beyond one-dimensional acting until late in the show when he becomes half civilized. Hensley does a great job, when he is finally allowed, of blending the dichotomy of the bestial monster with the emerging civilized monster. At times, he is quite a stitch. It’s just a shame that he does not get a chance to really act until near the end.

So this musical is not The Producers. Do not go to see it on the expectation that it will be anywhere near as much fun as that musical. Its story is much more pedestrian and far less interesting. In The Producers, we got some really weird and compelling characters. There is no equivalent to Leo Bloom or Max Bialystock in this musical. These characters are stereotypes. The Producers is a comedy of bad intentions gone awry. Young Frankenstein as a musical adds nothing to the material and leaves you with nothing memorable to hum on your way home. It feels tawdry in a way The Producers did not. If it had to be staged somewhere, it is better staged in a burlesque house than in a place as ornate as the Opera House at the Kennedy Center.

If you are a huge Mel Brooks fan, you may want to see the show just to say you saw it, but you will invariably be disappointed. The Producers reached very lofty heights indeed. Young Frankenstein tries to make you think that you are getting a lot more value from your two plus hours in the theater than you are actually getting.

My advice: just stay away. There has to be much better theater in the region than Young Frankenstein, and it is likely to be both better and cost less.

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