You can’t keep a good monster down — or a good monster story. Case in point, Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein.” Science-fiction authors from Asimov to Zelazny have played with the concepts; James Whale and other horror filmmakers have scared our pants off with them. The mad doctor as wannabe God. The creature as the doctor’s rejected son. It’s a great story — probably one of the greatest. Like any great story, it inspires great storytellers to find new ways of telling it.
This was Mel Brooks’ and Gene Wilder’s stroke of genius in the original “Young Frankenstein” film from 1974. They didn’t mock or deconstruct “Frankenstein.” They lovingly worked within the tradition. Their movie wasn’t just a satire; it was a sequel. (In case you missed it, Dr. Frankenstein’s grandson, Frederick, reluctantly follows in his forbearer’s “footshteps”). The original movie didn’t trash Shelley’s concepts. It stitched them together, gave them a new zap of electricity and made them come alive. Brooks and Wilder built on the original story, and it worked.
Mel Brooks’ 2009 musical, (co-written with Thomas Meehan — and now rampaging on the Manatee Performing Arts Center stage) works for the same reason. It’s surprising how much tissue survives from the original film. The horses neigh in terror at Frau Blucher’s name; Igor’s hump shifts from side to side. The gags (both smutty and clean) still make audiences howl.
But this is a musical, we’re talking about. It’s more than a funny play and, occasionally, less. Some gags make nice springboards for song-and-dance routines. For example, Frau Blücher’s defiant, “He vas my boyfriend!” The punch line becomes hilarious as an extended Brecht-style speech-song. Other gags don’t reanimate. “Roll in the hay” was a funny punch line but as an extended production number? Not so funny. When the musical strays from the core story, it doesn’t work. (Too much music. It’s an odd problem in a musical.) But, like I said, that only happens occasionally. The songs work when they’re expressions of character and aren’t simply gags set to music. Most work. The extended production of Irving Berlin’s “Puttin’ on the Ritz” is the best example. It’s not mere self-indulgence. It’s the creature’s honest expression of joy.
And, speaking of which, director/choreographer (Dewayne Barrett), actors and all the technical wizards involved are clearly enjoying themselves. Controlled anarchy isn’t easy on stage, but Barrett pulls it off like it’s no big deal. As to the actors: Brian F. Finnerly pushes away from Gene Wilder’s characterization. His Frederick Frankenstein is a nebbishy over-achiever, not a sublimated wild man. Mark Netherly’s Igor, on the other hand, is an homage to Marty Feldman’s original. (You were expecting maybe Peter Lorre?) Karen Lalosh puts in her own deadpan homage of Cloris Leachman’s Frau Blücher, but gets into kinky depths at which the movie only hinted. Andrea Wright’s Inga (not derivative of Teri Garr!) is her own Transylvanian temptress. Robert Austin’s wooden as Inspector Kemp — but his character’s supposed to be wooden — at least partly. (That’s the gag.) Danae DeShazer sizzles as Elizabeth, Dr. Frankenstein’s narcissistic, teasing-but-sexually-frozen fiancée. DeShazer makes the role her own; Madeline Kahn would be proud. William E. Masuck’s Creature is less Peter Boyle, more Lou Abbott. His misunderstood monster is a regular Joe, putting up with mopes and dopes in an Eastern European backwater. Space doesn’t permit props for all the mad scientists behind the minimal but effective sets, wacky costumes and joyfully over-the-top lighting effects.
And joy is what this musical’s really all about. (Surprising in a monster story, but there it is.) The original Dr. Frankenstein rejected his stitched-together son. Young Frankenstein doesn’t. In a pep talk worthy of a Jewish mother, he says “This is not a monster, this is a good boy!” In the end, creator and creature swap their best, uh, features, and the villagers put down their pitchforks and go home to have cake.
Don’t you wish all monster movies ended this way?
IF YOU GO
“Young Frankenstein” runs through Nov. 10, at Manatee Performing Arts Center, 502 Third Ave. W., Bradenton. Call 748-5875 or visit manateeplayers.com for more information.