“Young Frankenstein” Puts On The Ritz

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The Ohio University Performing Arts Series presented the Mel Brooks musical Young Frankenstein on Monday, Nov. 7 in Templeton-Blackburn Alumni Memorial Auditorium.

The plot of the musical, based on the 1974 film and directed and choreographed by Susan Stohman, serves primarily as a device to move the story from one musical number to the next.

This is not a bad thing, since the show is at its best when hurtling along, bouncing from song to song, mixing bits from the movie with new material.

The musical, produced by NETworks Presentations, stays quite faithful to the film; tracing the story in broad strokes, cutting back or expanding parts here and there, but always maintaining the same classic feel of its big screen sibling. 

Both productions tell the story of Frederick Frankenstein, played here by A.J. Holmes, the grandson of infamous monster-maker Victor Frankenstein. When Victor passes, Frederick learns he must journey to Victor’s home in Transylvania or sacrifice his inheritance.

Although he has worked to distance himself from his family’s monstrous legacy, Fredrick makes the trip. He is joined in the castle by the grandson of Victor’s loyal henchman (Christopher Timson), an enthusiastic new assistant (Elizabeth Palowski) and a mysterious housekeeper (Pat Sibley).

Frederick finds himself faced with temptation galore, in the form of a full set of creature-creating equipment, and in the shapely form of his laboratory assistant. In the end, you can call it a send-up of classic horror films, a tale about the power of impulsiveness or even a strangely faithful take on Shelley’s original material, but the story here is secondary to the comedy.

Many of the popular gags from the film show up in the musical, some staged independently, others worked into musical numbers.  The overall effect keeps the pace of the production going at a constant gallop.

The traveling production is clearly tailored for adaptability. Sets primarily feature simple painted backdrops alongside one or two large props, such as a horse-drawn wagon, a massive monster puppet and Frankenstein’s laboratory equipment. These props are inventive, and consistently used in ways that help increase the scope of the stage.

Dynamic lighting also helps make the most of a set with logistical limitations; from candlelight to strobe lightning, light is as much a prop as any other.

In a show so full of outsized characters, Holmes shines as a beacon of reserve. He captures Frederick’s internal turmoil, between the pull of “the family business” and his whitewashed self-image, with an entertaining blend of serious delivery and occasional electric outbursts. 

Timson, as Igor, charges through his role with enough energy to wake the dead. In the original film, Marty Feldman’s Igor was a bizarre blend of madcap and menace, outrageous but tempered with a subtlety that added to the performance. While Timson lacks the subtlety and the slight menace, he makes up for it with a manic portrayal. Igor’s endless enthusiasm balances Frederick’s hesitation, and their excellent chemistry is a high-point of the show.

The musical numbers are another high point. Featuring orchestral arrangements and energetic choreography, the lyrics take center-stage. Despite sometimes being overpowered by the music, the lyrics fly fast and sharp, humor laden in the traditional Brooks style.

For this same reason, this is not a show for children, since large portions of the plot revolve around innuendos. While many of them are double entendres, or otherwise masked, a handful are overt. Expletives make the odd appearance as well, though far less often than risqué references. 

Overall, Young Frankenstein the musical manages to feel very much like Young Frankenstein the film, despite their differences. Enough of the old gags are present for the whole show to seem familiar, but the musical elements give the production a jolt of freshness that breathes life into the story.