The big question on Broadway this year—besides when will the stagehand strike be settled—concerns the new Mel Brooks musical, “Young Frankenstein.” Will it live up to all its pre-opening hype? Will it be the critical and commercial success of Brooks’ last outing on Broadway with “The Producers?” Disappointingly, the answer is no. Sure, the advance sales will keep the SRO sign posted for months and months. But the production falls flat in a number of significant ways with only a few glimmers of maniacal and creative genius.
So, what’s the problem? First, and foremost, is Roger Bart as Dr. Frederick Frankenstein. Bart, who has been outstanding in supporting roles on Broadway—“You’re A Good Man, Charlie Brown” and “The Producers”—lacks the comedic playfulness and repressed energy necessary to hold the show together. Instead of being the point person, in this highly talented ensemble of musical comedy veterans, Bart too often blends in with the pack, fading instead of shining. Secondly, the delivery of the best jokes and funniest scenes from the movie, which the show is based on, fall flat. Actually, flat may be kind. Most of the time there is a monumental thud. Again, I fault Bart for his bland intonation and total lack of comedic timing. Director Susan Stroman should also be blamed for allowing some of the most highly anticipated moments of the production to become mere throwaway lines.
Lastly, as I just stated, this has to be one of the most highly regarded musical comedy casts that has been assembled since…well, since “The Producers.” Each member has their moment—from Megan Mullaly’s beltings to Sutton Foster’s acrobatic schtick to Andrea Martin’s enigmatic Frau Blucher, but the flow and continuity of the production suffers while each actor, in a sense, takes their turn in the sun. In film, where a director can call for a close-up or two-shot, the actor’s on-screen presence can be totally controlled. In a big, Broadway musical the director and book writers do not have the luxury of homing in on a select few characters while the others simply stand around. Everyone on stage needs to be in the mix. Too often in “Young Frankenstein” it seems central cast members are just hanging about, almost loitering within the confines of Robin Wagner’s imposing sets.
So, is there anything positive to say about “Young Frankenstein?” Sure. This is not a Broadway bomb, far from it. Christopher Fitzgerald, as Igor, totally embodies the zaniness of his character, cavorting merrily about the Hilton Theater stage. Shuler Hensley is both menacing and hilarious as the monster. His big production number in “Puttin’ on the Ritz,” is the absolute highlight of the musical. If the inspired inventiveness and creativity of that scene was replicated throughout the show then “Young Frankenstein” would be elevated to comic brilliance.
As mentioned, Robin Wagner’s sets, especially Dr. Frankenstein’s vast laboratory, are outstanding. The rest of the creative team, from Peter Kaczorowski’s lighting designs to the sound design by Jonathan Deans to Marc Brickman’s special effects, also deserve kudos. Mel Brooks’ score has its moments, producing a titter here and there, but nothing to match the wit and acumen of “The Producers.” Likewise, Susan Stroman’s direction can be problematic; her choreography conventional and overall unsatisfying.
“Young Frankenstein,” entertaining and a pleasant diversion, but not the monster hit one had hoped for.