As you know, it's pronounced Fronkensteen

Mel Brooks brings another of his films to stage. In a pre-Broadway engagement in Seattle, Young Frankenstein proves to be familiar ground with unfamiliar faces filling big shoes. But it's spectacular and fun.
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Clockwise from top left: Shuler Hensley as the monster; Mel Brooks; Roger Bart as Victor, Sutton Foster as Inga, and Andrea Martin as Frau Blucher. (Color: Paul Kolnik)

Mel Brooks brings another of his films to stage. In a pre-Broadway engagement in Seattle, Young Frankenstein proves to be familiar ground with unfamiliar faces filling big shoes. But it's spectacular and fun.

Years ago in Manhattan I sat across from Mel Brooks on a city bus with a few other people on board. Mr. Brooks wore a conservative suit and tie, and cordovan dress shoes. In the garish fluorescence of the night lit bus he looked serious and sober, stared straight ahead the whole time, and said nary a word. It was a major disappointment. Given his almost mythical reputation as a cut up, I felt cheated by his reticence to provide even a few minutes of riotous comedy for his fellow travelers. Brooks is a man of many parts: vulgarian, compulsive entertainer, steeped in the classics, Borscht Belt tummler, shrewd observer of life, student of film and theater. As much as anything else, he is also a smart and mischievous 12-year-old boy trapped in the body of a sprightly man of 80. He is one of our country's cultural treasures, with an illustrious comedy career that has kept Americans laughing for 60 years. His latest production, a stage adaptation of his film Young Frankenstein, is playing through Sept. 1 at Seattle's Paramount Theatre. After coming of age in Depression-era Brooklyn and serving in World War II, Brooks did stand-up comedy in that crucible of humor, the Jewish-run hotels of New York's Catskill Mountains. There he met Sid Caesar, another American original, and several years later joined the team that created each week's Your Show of Shows, the landmark television program that debuted in 1951. It showcased the volatile and immensely gifted Caesar supported by a riotous cast that included Imogene Coca, Carl Reiner, and Howard Morris, along with young writers later to make their mark in entertainment such as Brooks, Neil Simon and his brother, Danny, Mel Tolkin, and Larry Gelbart. A 90-minute format with comedy sketches interspersed with variety acts, Your Show of Shows was a perfect vehicle for these young talents in the early, free-wheeling days of television, drawing upon vaudeville and burlesque, popular culture, and the irreverent and outsider humor of Jewish Americans. Produced by the team of writers and actors with Caesar as ringmaster, the show featured sketches that parodied social conventions, music and movies of the time, and a repeating set of characters such as Caesar's "professor," the world's greatest and most obtuse expert on anything. Legendary for his wild-man role as the most anarchistic of the writers, the show proved a fertile ground for Brooks to develop his comedic skills, used to great effect a decade or so later as co-creator of the Get Smart TV spy spoof, and in teaming with Carl Reiner to produce the best-selling Two Thousand Year Old Man record albums. It's now 50 years since those halcyon days of Caesar and company's glory, but Brooks still sits astride American comedy as a giant figure, if now for very different reasons. His reputation as a comic genius was cemented in the late 1960s and '70s as the auteur of a trilogy of successful comedic films: cult favorite The Producers with the great Zero Mostel in a parody of Broadway excesses; Blazing Saddles, spoofing the western genre; and Young Frankenstein, giving the zinger to old horror movies, even including some of the original 1931 Frankenstein's laboratory props. He also formed a production company, Brooksfilm Limited, that developed such noted movies as The Elephant Man and My Favorite Year, a fondly satirical look back at Your Show of Shows. Although he continued to produce, direct, and star in his own films for a decade more, the later ones lacked the originality and spark of his earlier works. By 2001, with his career seemingly relegated to appearing on TV in sitcoms, Brooks stunned the musical theater world with his live version of The Producers, starring Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick, achieving a critical and financial success on Broadway of epic proportions. That Brooks would have this interest should not be surprising, as he loves the genre, and his own films often included musical numbers, some quite lavish. As his next, post-Producers project, he turned to a new version of Young Frankenstein using the same creative team as for The Producers. Seattle's beautiful Paramount Theater, in the unlikely case you might have been living in a cave this last month, has been the tryout site for the show since Aug. 7 (it opens on Broadway in November), though reviewers were allowed only this past Thursday evening, Aug. 23. For those who love musical theater and great production values, and who can't get enough of Mel Brooks' bawdy humor, Young Frankenstein should prove a real treat. For others, who question turning film hits into stage musicals, who treasure the memory of Young Frankenstein the film, or who see Mr. Brooks' rim-shot humor as too juvenile, this may not be the show that swivels their seats. Young Frankenstein is treasured as perhaps the most complete of Mel Brooks' film comedies, with a wonderful ensemble cast, consistent storyline, good dialogue, and splendid visual gags. Shot in glorious black and white, it is the tale of rational Dr. Victor Frankenstein's trip to Transylvania to his ancestral home, where he is transformed and eventually follows in the path of his notorious monster-making, village-terrorizing grandfather, the original Dr. F. The cast includes Gene Wilder, who co-wrote the script with Brooks, Madeleine Kahn as his ice-cold fiancée, Peter Boyle playing the monster, English comedian Marty Feldman as the hump-backed Transylvanian assistant Igor, Terri Garr portraying the not-so-innocent, virginal Inga, and an unusually funny Gene Hackman in an uncredited turn as a lonely hermit. The crowd that showed up at the Paramount last Thursday evening was primed for action from the get-go, and the show didn't disappoint, starting with three big production numbers. Many had seen the film, perhaps more than once, and anticipated all the familiar plot turns, words, and slapstick action. It gave the evening a participatory feeling that reminded one of a midnight showing of Rocky Horror Picture Show. Because it was first a film, one cannot judge Young Frankenstein as an original. The story and action remain very much the same except for a disappointing new ending, though the musical form adds exciting and intriguing dimensions. Those audience members who have not seen the movie are best served, viewing all with fresh eyes. For the others, one cannot help but make comparisons with the original, and some might ask why this whole effort is necessary. Who could possibly replace bug-eyed Marty Feldman, near hysterical Gene Wilder, and the sublime Madeleine Kahn? Or improve upon the film's "Puttin' on the Ritz" number performed by Wilder and Peter Boyle? Mr. Brooks is clearly having the time of his life with live theater, the show will probably make a bundle for its corporate backers and producers, fine performers get work, and I'm guessing the great majority of viewers will have a rapturous time, even at the exorbitant ticket prices of New York. For the show's leads, it's a challenge to find new ways of interpreting their roles yet not wandering so far that they might alienate an audience who have come to see spectacle, or demand to see what they already know. The story and dialogue hew closely to the original, leaving the actors to use non-verbal devices and inflections of voice and cadence to develop their own interpretations, or, conversely to make pitch-perfect imitations of the originals. And as in any Brooks film, the shtick, slapstick, and double entendres are laid on so thick and fast, that it takes an expert in timing to make them work. Succeeding wonderfully at all this are Fred Applegate, who plays Inspector Kemp and the Hermit; Shuler Hensley as The Monster, terrifically befuddled at his situation (he's alive!) and certainly looking great in a size 90 tuxedo; and Andrea Martin as Frau Blucher, so ugly and stern that horses whinny at the mere mention of her name. At one point, Martin's exquisite reaction to the silent mouthing of her name, but still getting the equine raspberry, is priceless to behold. Christopher Fiztgerald, playing Igor, he of the meandering hump, is often great fun. Faring less well are the show's leads, though all are gifted and experienced musical performers. Roger Bart is Victor, Megan Mullally plays his fiancée, Elizabeth, and Sutton Foster is Inga. Mr. Bart is a tad bland in the role and not quite up to its sly comedic demands. Ms. Mullally gives a new read on the icy Elizabeth, more knowing and brassy from the start, and therefore less funny in the latter stages of the show when she discovers true love with The Monster and his magical wand. However, she does have a show-stopper number early on with "Please Don't Touch Me," when seeing Victor off to Transylvania. Ms. Foster has few responsibilities beyond being beautiful, available, and doing the splits, and lacks the slight edge that lets us know she is in on the joke. Young Frankenstein is an unusually handsome production. Twenty million dollars or so has reportedly been invested in it, and every dollar shows. Peter Kaczorowski's lighting is dramatically effective yet unobtrusive when needed. Robin Wagner's scenery offers a new wonder at each turn, most of it traditional set pieces, such as the smashing art-deco steamship on which Victor sails to Transylvania. Computer assisted images designed by Marc Brickman include a wagon driving through a virtual forest on the way to the Frankenstein castle. William Ivey Long's costumes and the props were excellent throughout. Particular delights were the two human horses who drew a cart, a huge puppet figure of the Monster carried by townspeople, and the peasant outfits of the women's ensemble, though I'm not sure traditional village ladies such as these would have done folk dances wearing garter belts and stockings under their dresses. But Mel will be Mel. Supporting the storyline was the fine choreography by director Susan Stroman, owing its inspiration to many sources, among them a dream sequence that references Fiddler on the Roof, "Puttin' on the Ritz," a funny and clever homage to Fred Astaire, staging for the chorus that echoes Eastern European ethnic dance vocabulary, and a wonderful vaudevillian buddy turn for Victor and Igor on their initial meeting, "Together for the First Time." The show begins with a bang, in fact five straight bangs – song-and-dance numbers that come one after another to set-up the characters and storyline. Afterward, much of the rest of the first act is dialogue with some music, and it drags. Careful pruning needs to take place, and the closing big number before intermission needs better integration into the storyline. There was much recent chatter on the Internet about the length of the show (three hours), but the pacing of the second act was much tighter than the first, though the spectacular and somewhat overblown "Puttin' on the Ritz" number in mid-act was a tough one to follow, and the show never quite got its momentum going again. Young Frankenstein is Mel Brooks' vision, and besides being the co-producer and co-writer with Thomas Meehan, he created the music, ably performed by the live orchestra, and wrote the song lyrics. Much of the latter have snap and wit to them, but the music is derivative and rarely rises above being serviceable, with no tunes that really stick with you. If there is a next Brooks film-to-stage production, let's say Blazing Saddles (High Anxiety has been mentioned as another possibility), the auteur might consider bringing in a partner to work with him on the music. And if there is a live version of Blazing Saddles upcoming, I can't wait to see what Mr. Brooks and company do with the farting-cowboy scene. Now that's something I'd pay $482 a seat on Broadway to see!


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