In the early 2000s, many otherwise apparently reasonable people were willing to wait for months and spend the equivalent of a mortgage payment to see the musicalization of The Producers, a previously modestly successful film comedy by Mel Brooks. Since many consider Brooks' 1974 Young Frankenstein, his affectionate satire of horror movies of the 1930s, to be one of the greatest comedies of all time, it was a no-brainer (pun intended) also to morph this into a musical comedy. The Durham Performing Arts Center (DPAC) is presenting this delightfully transformed show – The New Mel Brooks Musical Young Frankenstein (actual official name!) – to local audiences, and it should not be missed.
The action begins in Transylvania (where else?) as the news that Dr. Victor von Frankenstein has died spreads through the village, resulting in the cast singing "The Happiest Town." Here we meet the first but lesser main character, Inspector Kemp, played in the usual Brooks over-the-top, farcical manner by David Benoit. The village's rejoicing that they are finally rid of this mad scientist is ruined when they learn that Frederick, a grandson of Frankenstein, is a notable brain expert who lives in New York.
The scene switches to NY where we meet Frederick, who insists that his name be pronounced "Fronkensteen" (one of the many repetitive jokes throughout the show). Christopher Ryan portrays this lead part with a great Broadway-style voice, fluid dancing, and charm to spare. His first number, "The Brain," starts off and sounds suspiciously like "There is Nothing Like a Dame" except with tongue-contorting patter that makes Gilbert & Sullivan sound like a slow prayer.
Speaking of the music, it is a remarkable feat that Mel Brooks, like his predecessor comedian/actor/director Charlie Chaplin – and also Clint Eastwood – has written the music for many of his movies and musicals. While I can't honestly say that I recall much of the music – except of course for his use of Irving Berlin's "Puttin' on the Ritz" in the lavish production number that pays homage to Fred Astaire and that great dance tradition - all of Brooks' songs are well-crafted and move the story along.
Before Frederick boards the ship to Transylvania, we meet Elizabeth, his stuck up, socialite fiancée, played by Janine Divita, as she and all the ensemble women sing "Please Don't Touch Me." Upon arrival at the village we meet, one by one, the remaining main characters. First is the assistant, Igor, a hunchback who is almost as famous as the one from Phantom of the Opera; on this character centers another endlessly recurring joke, as his name is pronounced "Eye-gore." Cory English has all the comic timing, the voice, and the vaudeville-style presence to make his portrayal deliciously irreverent. You just want to eat him up. Synthia Link plays Inga, the sexy "lab assistant," who greets Frederick with the song "Roll in the Hay."
For those looking for an evening of sophisticated comedy: this ain't the musical for you. Brooks is crude, lewd, rude, and repetitive, and people love it, even as you groan at its often juvenile obviousness. When Igor arrives at the huge door of the castle and knocks, Frederick says "nice knockers" and Inga responds "thank you."
With a steely demeanor and exaggerated German accent, housekeeper of the castle Frau Blucher is played with great Teutonic iciness by Joanna Glushak. She keeps to character until she breaks out in "He Vas My Boyfriend," one of the highlights of the evening. The final main character we meet is the monster himself. Played by the youthful, very un-monster looking Preston Truman Boyd, he uses an arsenal of grunts, screams, and guttural utterances to bring "life" to the creature. He has great comedic moments with the blind mountain man in his shack and when he meets and "gets together" with Elizabeth. (The monster is oversized in all respects.)
Young Frankenstein is the perfect evening out for an uncomplicated, funny, and musically satisfying theatrical experience. The sets are quite magnificent, especially the laboratory in the castle where the monster comes alive. There are quite a lot of strong strobe lighting effects, so that should be taken into account for those who may be adversely affected. The big production numbers like "Join the Family Business" and several others are as good as you will ever see in any Broadway musical, past or present. As his been the case with many of the touring musicals that come to DPAC, the core touring orchestra is joined by several local musicians.
Mr. Brooks may not be done yet. After the official choreographed bows at the end of the show, there was one last number where we are forewarned that we may next see the musical Blazing Saddles. For those familiar with that film, particularly the campfire scene, Young Frankenstein will seem like Hamlet in comparison.
This show runs through December 12 at the Durham Performing Arts Center. For details, see our calendar.