"Young Frankenstein" Puts On The Ritz

Roger Bart, right, as Dr. Frederich Frankenstein attempts to get as close as girlfriend Elizabeth, played by Megan Mullalley, will allow in this scene from the Broadway production of "Young Frankenstein."
AP Photo/Barlow-Hartman/Paul Kolnik
What does it take to bring a big green monster -- not to mention a $20 million musical -- to toe-tapping life? A nearly 80-year-old Irving Berlin standard called "Puttin' on the Ritz."

The song shakes the slumbers out of "Young Frankenstein," the feverishly anticipated Mel Brooks musical that arrived Thursday at Broadway's Hilton Theatre. Dressing the creature (a delightfully lumbering Shuler Hensley) in top hat and tails as well as backing him up with a similarly clothed chorus line invigorates what until then has been a scattered, fitfully entertaining show.

You can't help having some fun at "Young Frankenstein," especially when you have a parade of expert comedians and musical-theater performers such as Roger Bart, Megan Mullally and Andrea Martin around to strut their stuff. They work hard, sometimes too hard. Comedy, heaven knows, is difficult, but it should look easy. Here, the effort sometimes gets in the way of the laughs.

"Young Frankenstein" arrives with a lot of baggage, most notably its inevitable comparison to Brooks' 1974 movie version, which, for some, represents comic celluloid nirvana. Buffs will recognize -- and recite along with the actors -- jokes from the movie. Brooks and Thomas Meehan, who collaborated on the new book, have gone out of their way to add some new ones, not all of which land with precision. But the stage version follows the film pretty closely.

Photos: "Young Frankenstein" Lives!
Brooks also wrote the music and lyrics, and his pale pastiche of a score echoes -- none too memorably -- the works of such seasoned songsmiths as Rodgers and Hammerstein, Kander and Ebb and a bit of Cole Porter thrown in for good measure. With lyrics such as "There is nothing like the brain" (sorry, R&H), the standard of wit descends pretty rapidly.

The film is not the only ghost with which this stage "Young Frankenstein" has to contend. There's also a little something called "The Producers," Brooks' last Broadway venture, a genuine "monster" success.

Unlike "The Producers," which has a backstage, show-biz story, "Young Frankenstein" doesn't naturally sing. Its plot doesn't need songs to advance the plot, so a lot of the musical numbers here feel like padding, something director-choreographer Susan Stroman hasn't been able to gloss over.

For those in the dark, the story, set in the 1930s, concerns the grandson of the famous Dr. Frankenstein who travels to Transylvania to claim his late grandfather's estate and who gets to create a new monster all his own.

The film -- in glorious black and white -- lovingly sends up monster movies of yore. The musical's intentions aren't as clear since song and dance get in the way of the parody, diluting the spoofing.

Bart, a complete musical-comedy performer, gamely portrays Frederick Frankenstein, the musical's title character. And that's Fronken-steen, folks -- one of the evening's most seriously overused jokes. Frustratingly, Bart never gets to burst out with a show stopper of his own.

Martin, though, provides some sassy, salacious humor, hilariously channeling the sexual repression of the housekeeper Frau Blucher. It helps that the actress gets one of Brooks' better ditties, "He Vas My Boyfriend," a Marlene Dietrich-inspired hymn to Blucher's love affair with Frederick's grandfather.

Sutton Foster, sort of a grown-up Heidi who serves as Frederick's assistant and love interest, is stuck with the more conventional musical-comedy numbers. She handles them with aplomb. And Foster has the best yodel on Broadway, a talent that hasn't been this expertly exploited since Mary Martin warbled "The Lonely Goatherd" in "The Sound of Music" nearly a half-century ago.

"Young Frankenstein" should do wonders for the career of Christopher Fitzgerald, an athletic scamp of a guy who portrays Frankenstein's devoted, demented sidekick, Igor. Verbally and physically, the man can command the stage.

And there is a "Three Stooges"-physical comedy scene lifted from the movie featuring a blind hermit (Fred Applegate) and the monster. Its familiarity will not dampen anyone's appreciation of Brooks' lowbrow humor.

Mullally, as Frederick's high-tone, socialite fiancee, has to compete with the incandescent memories of Madeline Kahn, who played the role in the film. She is also saddled with the show's worst songs, although the production's unfortunate, metallic sound system -- and maybe this is a good thing -- muffles much of the lyrics.

The Hilton, though, is probably one of the few Broadway theaters that could properly showcase designer Robin Wagner's massive settings. Frankenstein's laboratory is gargantuan, a towering cavern that climbs to the top of the theater's proscenium arch. And there is a marvelous hay ride scene that has Bart, Foster and Fitzgerald, bouncing along on a wagon as scenery speeds by.

Stroman has some inventive moments of choreography: boys and girls dancing -- but not exactly together -- in a number for Mullally with the quirky, anti-romantic title of "Please Don't Touch Me." Or smiling peasants cavorting their way through a folksy routine called "Transylvania Mania."

Still, they are not exactly the requisite delirium the best musical comedy can provide. Joy arrives when that Berlin golden oldie takes center stage midway through Act 2. Suddenly, this "Frankenstein" seems as young -- and as promising -- as its title.
By Michael Kuchwara