When Mel Brooks came up with the idea of adapting his film The Producers into a Broadway production, what followed became musical theater history. A record number of Tony Awards and a lengthy run ensued, as well as numerous national tours.
Yet, several years later when Brooks tried to create magic anew with another of his classics, Young Frankenstein, he wasn’t as successful with audiences and critics. That’s kind of a shame. No one will ever call the 2007 musical version of the film a classic, but it’s a production that pays warm tribute to its source material yet manages to create its own goofy charm.
Young Frankenstein, now running in a swell production through November 8 at the Jennie T. Anderson Theater at the Cobb Civic Center, courtesy of Atlanta Lyric Theatre, is blessed with ace direction and a cast that very much relishes the chance to step into their character’s shoes.
Googie Uterhardt takes on the role of Dr. Frederick Frankenstein, who is dean of anatomy at New York’s Johns, Miriam and Anthony Hopkins School of Medicine. He’s also the grandson of the just-deceased Victor Frankenstein.
He is summoned to Transylvania when he inherits his late grandfather’s castle and is met there by the likes of hunchback Igor (Austin Tijerina) and curvy lab assistant Inga (Alison Brannon Wilhoit).
Back at the castle, Frederick discovers Frau Blucher (Marti Melle Lindstrom), who has some mysteries of her own — and whose name scares even the horses. Eventually Frederick is able to learn of his grandfather’s abilities and decides to bring a corpse (Blake Burgess) to life. The results aren’t what he intended.
Brooks has written the book for the musical (along with Thomas Meehan) and it’s very close to the popular 1974 movie, with some subtle changes, mostly involving Victor’s love interest, Elizabeth (Mary Nye Bennett).
Much of this is plain funny, even when the gags that are coming are familiar to most audience members. Brooks has also penned the music and lyrics, which are mostly successful. True, some of the music only bridges scenes and others, such as the Act I closer “Transylvania Mania,” are disappointing.
Overall, though, the songs are an eclectic, spirited bunch, featuring some snazzy choreography by Ricardo Aponte and Jennifer Smiles and top-notch musical direction by Paul Tate and BJ Brown. (In lieu of a live orchestra, the music is pre-recorded, but that doesn’t significantly diminish the musical’s impact).
The most crowd-pleasing and lavish number is “Puttin’ on the Ritz” (also featured in the film) that turns into a full-fledged tap number involving most of the ensemble. Inga’s “Roll in the Hay” is a pleasant and creative song involving out-of-control horses and a boisterous wagon ride, while Bennett’s “Please Don’t Touch Me” is a smart number about Elizabeth’s lack of sexual contact with Frederick.
Directed by Brandt Blocker — the company’s artistic director — this is a classy work complimented by a nimble set by Robin Wagner (from the original New York production) and some clever special effects. Blocker moves the show especially well and his ensemble is virtually perfect.
Uterhardt is a game choice to play the leading role. He has a light touch that suits the material but he can certainly navigate the music, and song and dance bits as well. Tijerina handles Igor with deftness and acute physicality while the likes of Bennett, Wilhoit and Burgess are terrific in support. In multiple characters, including the Blind Man, Alan Kilpatrick gets to have a lot of fun.
Yet the most pleasant surprise is the performance of Lindstrom as Frau Blucher. To be honest, Lindstrom is the pseudonym of another performer, one closely associated with the theater company, yet to reveal any more would be giving away one of the more unexpected, yet on-target casting decisions of the season. Suffice to say that the performer brings tremendous showmanship and comic timing to the role. “He Vas My Boyfriend” is arguably the show’s drollest moment, with Frau expressing her true feelings towards the late Frankenstein.
This is a show where virtually everything works. It may be flying under the radar a bit locally but it’s certainly one of the fall’s sharpest productions. It’s a safe bet that if you liked the movie, you’ll dig Atlanta Lyric Theatre’s musical version quite a bit.