Sunday, October 18, 2009

It's Pronounced "Fronkensteen"

The New Mel Brooks Musical Young Frankenstein
17 October 2009: Palace Theatre at Playhouse Square, Cleveland, Ohio

One of my birthday presents this year was a date night with Tracy: tickets to see Young Frankenstein, the new Mel Brooks musical, at Playhouse Square. So, after dropping the kiddo at the in-laws for the overnight, we headed to Ken Stewart’s Tre Belle for an early dinner. Everything was perfect (including prosciutto as God intended it: wrapped around fresh cantaloupe melon). We had forgotten it was Sweetest Day, the Cleveland-invented greeting card holiday that’s celebrated in the Great Lakes region, so we were actually grateful the show time forced us into an uncharacteristically early dinner, because we were winging it without dinner reservations.

We arrived downtown in time to people watch from the balcony of the Palace Theatre lobby before heading to our seats and settling in for an amusing ride. Our theatre going has been decidedly R-rated of late. We saw Spring Awakening earlier this year (teen sex, masturbation, suicide), Young Frankenstein now (“Don’t touch our tits!”), and Avenue Q is up next in the spring (Sesame Street with full-frontal puppet nudity!). But where Spring Awakening was explicit and serious, Young Frankenstein is more bawdy fun. (I’m curious to see where Avenue Q will fit on this scale.)

It’s interesting that the movies that helped shape my sense of humor in my teen years (and are still quoted in my daily lexicon) – John Waters’ Hairspray, Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Brooks’ The Producers and now Young Frankenstein – are finding new life on Broadway, but it can be a slippery-slope of perceived nostalgia mixed with lazy creativity. Thankfully, the adaptation of Young Frankenstein to the stage is largely successful.

Young Frankenstein preserves the storyline of the movie, along with many of the key set-ups/one-liners that make the movie so classic, but expands some of the themes and scenes (mostly in the right places). Elizabeth’s “Please Don’t Touch Me” number felt a bit like filler, but “Join the Family Business” – a completely new scene in which the ghost of Victor Frankenstein attempts to convince Frederick to take up the mantle of his work and create a new monster – was excellent! That number was also the point in the show where I really sat up and took notice of the choreography. It was probably the most perfect moment of the entire night for me.

Inga’s introduction number, “Roll in the Hay”, was fantastic, beautifully built off the great Teri Garr movie line. And Frau Blücher’s “He Vas My Boyfriend” was another well-turned adaptation and expansion of a classic movie line, this time one of Cloris Leachman’s.

The second act didn’t feel as muscular as the first, but did have its moments. “Puttin’ on the Ritz” vied for the show-stopper slot; and it was good, but it was also predictable. Anyone going into the show with even a passing familiarity with the movie would expect that. (“Join the Family Business” seemed a more complete centerpiece in act one than anything act two had to offer.)

For my money, the gem of the night was the blind hermit’s “Please Send Me Someone”. The result was a great homage to Gene Hackman’s genius original performance, but infused with its own unique character. The other great act two moment was Elizabeth’s “Deep Love”. A double entendre rendered surprisingly (and uncharacteristically for Brooks!) subtle by the musical arrangement, so much so that it seemed many in the audience were unsure how to take the song.

More than History of the World, Part I... more than Blazing Saddles... more than Spaceballs... more than The Producers... Young Frankenstein has always been my favorite Mel Brooks movie. And while the stage production of it might not be the out-and-out hit The Producers was, I came away satisfied. Now I’m holding out for the musical adaptation of Silent Movie. That would be something to see!