‘Young Frankenstein,’ from the movies, surprisingly successful on stage

By A Contributor

We’ve had a run of movies made into theater productions. Most of the titles that come immediately to mind — “The Lion King” being first — belong to the category of entertainments made so that blocks of tickets could be purchased by tour promoters and ticket agencies. The disastrous Royal Shakespeare Company 1990 version of Kubrick’s film of Burgess’s novel “A Clockwork Orange” (with music written by the Irish Rock band U2) was, I believe, one of the events which led to the company’s near bankruptcy and it desertion of London’s Barbican.

But techniques have mixed results. At McCain we’ve recently enjoyed a production of a musical based on “Monty Python and the Holy Grail.” An odd, comic play version of Hitchcock’s “The Thirty-nine Steps” has been playing in London’s West End for a couple of years, inspiring a stage production of the Ealing comedy “The Ladykillers” which I saw last week. It was OK.

And, then, the aging Mel Brooks has gained a new generation of fans with his Broadway musical based on his own movie “The Producers.” He wrote the new songs for the stage version of “Young Frankenstein,” the 1974 movie he wrote with Gene Wilder. Last Thursday, ticket holders in K-State’s wonderful McCain Auditorium saw a good touring company production of this 2009 Broadway musical.

As a send-up of the monster movie genre, the stage “Young Frankenstein” was unnecessary. But it turned out that kind of satire of familiar categories of movies, a kind of satire that has been Brooks’s primary stock in trade since “Blazing Saddles,” was not really what was on the old man’s mind when he put this play together. Instead it is a send-up of movie musicals. And while the sort of thing he is kidding about is utterly historic, the silliness worked pretty well, I thought.

It worked not because the songs were imaginative—they weren’t — or because the show had a lot of new comic material in it — the jokes were straight out of the movie — “Put the candle back!” and the horses whinnying every time Frau Blucher’s name was spoken aloud.

No. The show amused us because it went fast (though we were there more than two and a half hours) and because the young cast was energetic, talented, and well rehearsed and cast. A.J. Holmes was like a young Robert Downey Jr. imitating Wilder. He could dance and sing and, like Rodney McGruder, carry things only when he was required to do so.

The other cast members provided him with opportunities to get laughs in support. Lexie Dorsett’s brassy American fiancee was so good I thought the Inga couldn’t measure up. But I was wrong. Elizabeth Pawlowski managed her good-natured snow bunny of a character to great effect. Pat Sibley as Blucher won our admiration with the song “He Vas My Boyfriend,” and Christopher Timson proved he didn’t need Marty Feldman’s eyes to get laughs as Igor.

That’s “eye-gore,” Dr. “Fronken-steen.” All the jokes from the original movie worked a treat. Referring to the audience for the interpolated stage show as “distinguished villagers” is the sort of inspired nonsense one expects from Brooks.

But the jokes proper wouldn’t have saved the second act if it hadn’t been for the timing of Jerome Doerger playing The Monster. We were amused when the doctor brought him out to perform “Puttin’ on the Ritz,” the great Irving Berlin song. But Doerger’s delivery of the verse ending title pushed us all over the top into loud laughter.

So what if most of the songs sounded alike and, too often, like “Sing, Sing, Sing”? The big McCain crowd was guffawing pretty much all the way through to the end of this play, a surprisingly successful stage version of a story we knew from the movie screen.

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