Friday, October 16, 2009

Young Frankenstein, PlayhouseSquare

(Shuler Hensley as the Monster and Roger Bart as Frankenstein)

In stage musicals, there’s a fine line between a send-up and a pop-up. When you attempt to poke fun at a collection of Broadway styles and schtick, as Young Frankenstein, now at the Palace Theatre at PlayhouseSquare, seeks to do, you can either succeed in piercing those hoary pretensions (Spamalot wittily accomplished this) or trammel them into mush, as this parody of a parody sadly does.

Comedic genius Mel Brooks wrote the music and lyrics, and co-authored the book with Thomas Meehan, all based on the movie of the same name Brooks wrote with Gene Wilder. But there is more bland filler and floor sweepings in this elaborately staged production than in a truckload of Walmart wienies.

In brief, the story follows Frederick Frankenstein as he returns to his family home in Transylvania to claim the spooky castle he has inherited. In quick order he meets the weird castle servants including the humpback Igor and Frau Blucher. With the help of lab assistant Inga, Frankenstein (again, as in the flick, he insists on “Fronkensteen”) sets about to reanimate the dead, and off we go.

Trouble is, instead of a spirited romp we are led on a forced march through various Great White Way musical genres—a bit of Gilbert & Sullivan here, a bit of Sondheim there—which all feel formulaic and not terribly funny. As directed and choreographed by Susan Stroman, the entire enterprise seems rather worn and not at all surprising.

It’s unusual for a touring production to feature a couple leads who played those same roles on Broadway, but here we have Roger Bart reprising as Frankenstein and Shuler Hensley as the Monster. This is not totally good news. Bart performs with the loose effortlessness of a late-afternoon lounge singer in an off-the-strip Las Vegas casino. He knows show biz, babe, and he knows what he’s doing. So he’s not about to expend any unnecessary energy on your behalf.

Also, by continually winking at his character and his own performance, Bart eliminates the straight man from this comedy formula, so that the really weird characters like Igor, Blucher and the Monster have no one to lean against and ignite sparks. Hensley does well with his duties as the freshly animated monster. But Cory English as Igor is only amusing in micro-bursts, and Joanna Glushak’s Frau Blucher is just dull in those few moments when her guttural accent is understandable.

It’s a shame that people, one of whom created The Producers and the other who directed The Lion King would come up with such a tiresome cavalcade of worn out burlesque bits, predictable gags and seen-it dance numbers. Just goes to show, you have be careful about the monsters you create.

Young Frankenstein
Through October 25 at the Palace Theatre,
PlayhouseSquare, 1615 Euclid Avenue,

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