Where did we go almost right? - as Max and Leo (almost) used to sing in "The Producers." The new Mel Brooks/Susan Stroman musical extravaganza "Young Frankenstein" is nearly very good indeed - but it is not the "The Producers."
It has the same bloodlines - a Mel Brooks musicalization of a classic Mel Brooks movie staged by Susan Stroman - hence the hype, not to mention the expectation of premium ticket prices.
It also has a great comic lead in Roger Bart as that virginal Dr. Fronkensteen being transported to the dark side of the moon.
But this story - a dazzlingly affectionate spoof of all the Boris Karloff movies that ever karloffed - does not lend itself to stage adaptation in the way of the earlier movie.
There is no Hitler to have a Springtime, and, as a cult movie, "Young Frankenstein" owed a terrific amount to the personas and performances of the entire movie cast, particularly the goggle-eyed, cockney Marty Feldman as Igor the hunchback and Gene Wilder as the eponymous hero, Frederick Frankenstein.
When you trade on a legend, you have to match up. "Young Frankenstein" does not - quite.
Now for the good news.
In telling this tale of a young scientist who sets sail for Europe on the H.M.S. Queen Murray to reluctantly join the family business of making Monsters in darkest Eastern Europe, Brooks and Stroman pull out every stop.
Despite music that's more ho-hum than hummable, Brooks's lyrics are bright and witty.
Better yet, the book - maintaining virtually all of those iconic quotable quotes - does a great job, with the assistance of co-writer Thomas Meehan, in transferring the original script to the stage.
An even greater job is done by Stroman whose staging, choreography and supervising of special effects manage to suggest the Broadway musical at its dizziest, glitziest and funniest. In her entire career, Stroman has done nothing better - she even outproduces her work on "The Producers."
Her choreography has a divine silliness that totally realizes the movie's original concept, while the burlesque of an entire Astaire routine topping the famed "Puttin' on the Ritz" episode has a touch of manic genius.
The delicious scenery by Robin Wagner and equally apt costumes by William Ivey Long are matched by Peter Kaczorowski's evocative lighting and the sound design by Jonathan Deans (yes, like the movie, the horses still whinny on cue for Frau Blucher). As for the special effects by Marc Brickman, the spectacle of Frankenstein's journey to the castle in a hay-cart - I suppose that's an effect counted as special - was among the cleverest things I've ever seen onstage.
The cast works valiantly and, in part, successfully to erase all memory of the silver screen.
It would be unrealistic to reproduce in a musical Wilder's comic yet poetic intensity as the hero, so Brooks and Stroman have nattily reimagined him as a beguiling, bewildered Broadway song-and-dance man, and Bart is nothing less than terrific.
Christopher Fitzgerald is also pretty good at catching the amiable grotesquerie of Feldman's original hunchbacked henchman Igor - although his cockney accent seems to vary as much as that movable hump.
I loved Andrea Martin's formidable housekeeper, Frau Blucher, while as the ladies unsheltering Frankenstein's love life, Sutton Foster (who knew this wonder could yodel?) and Megan Mullally proved distinctive delights.
Finally there was Shuler Hensley, fine as the Monster who loses his pizazz to acquire a brain, and Fred Applegate in a neat double as the stiff Inspector Kemp and the blind Hermit seeking love and a sense of direction.
So, is "Young Frankenstein" worth $450 for "premium seats" (you also get a glass of Champagne, a souvenir program and maybe even pretzels)?
Well, I understand from the press release that "$25 orchestra seats will be available at most performances." At that price the show would be a bargain, even if the seats are in the orchestra pit. You would even have money left over for a soda during intermission.
We may as well start with the obvious questions about “Young Frankenstein,” the really big show from Mel Brooks that opened last night at the Hilton Theater. The answer to all of them is no.
No, it is not nearly as good as “The Producers,” Mr. Brooks’s previous Broadway musical. No, it is not as much fun as the 1974 Mel Brooks movie, also called “Young Frankenstein,” on which it is based. No, it does not provide $450 worth of pleasure (that being its record-setting price for “premier seating”).
Well, unless you measure your pleasure in decibels. Even by the blaring standards of Broadway, “Young Frankenstein,” directed and choreographed by Susan Stroman, stands out for its loudness — in its ear-splitting amplification, eye-splitting visual effects and would-be side-splitting jokes. It’s as if the production had been built on the premise that its audiences would be slow on the uptake and hard of hearing, the sort of folks who would say: “That pun flew right by me. Could you repeat it a couple of times, louder?”
There’s no denying that this hopped-up stage version of Mr. Brooks’s movie, about a brilliant American doctor who finds his heart (among other body parts) in Transylvania, looks like it cost every penny of its reported $16 million-plus budget. Much of Robin Wagner’s comic-book gothic set could fit right into that gold standard of family-friendly scariness, the Haunted Mansion at Disney World.
Still, as newly rich New Yorkers learn every day, money can’t buy you flair. It can’t even buy you laughs. “Young Frankenstein” — which features songs by Mr. Brooks and a book by Mr. Brooks and Thomas Meehan, his collaborator on “The Producers” — certainly has a high density of talent. It also surely has the hardest-working supersize ensemble, led by an amiable but overwhelmed Roger Bart, and the largest percentage of gags per scene.
Some of those gags, many of which are lifted from the movie, are pretty funny. (O.K., let’s be honest: I laughed exactly three times.) There are some enjoyable musical routines. (All right, my count is 2 out of nearly 20.) And if the headline stars, Mr. Bart (in the title role) and Megan Mullally (as his Park Avenue fiancée), don’t feel naturally wedded to their roles, the production does offer confirmation of the distinctive, very different talents of Sutton Foster, Shuler Hensley and Andrea Martin.
The show takes many of the elements that made “The Producers” such a delight and then saps them of their joy by overselling them. The problem is partly the source material. “The Producers” was originally a 1968 movie about putting on a musical. In translating it to the stage, Mr. Brooks, Mr. Meehan and Ms. Stroman filled it with both an insider’s sardonic knowingness and a fan’s affection. Amid the show’s sea of clever industry caricatures were two real characters: the producers themselves, Max Bialystock and Leo Bloom, embodied as an exhilarating double act by Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick.
The film of “Young Frankenstein,” which Pauline Kael called Mr. Brooks’s “most sustained piece of moviemaking,” was a different kettle of celluloid, a genre pastiche of Depression-era American monster movies. Mr. Brooks scrupulously honored the style of those films, even to the point of shooting it in black-and-white, and then tossed in a stink bomb of Catskills humor.
It’s not impossible to simulate dark vintage movies onstage. (The Broadway-bound British recreation of Hitchcock’s “39 Steps” is proof of that.) But it’s a lot harder if your first objective is to be bawdy, bouncy and colorful. Despite its fidelity to the film’s script, “The New Mel Brooks Musical Young Frankenstein” (to use its sprawling official title) feels less like a sustained book musical than an overblown burlesque revue, right down to its giggly smuttiness.
Ms. Stroman seems to take the show one joke at a time: land this gag, milk it for as long as possible and then mark time with some standard-issue ensemble dancing until you move on to the next . As with “Spamalot,” another (and much better) movie-inspired musical, you can sense people in the audience anticipating their favorite jokes from the film and roaring even before the punch lines. Similarly, the performances operate on a gag-by-gag basis. This vaudeville sensibility may account for the disconnectedness of Mr. Bart’s Frederick Frankenstein. (It may also come from Mr. Bart’s reportedly having injured his back during previews.) But as the New York doctor who in 1934 visits Transylvania to settle his grandfather’s estate and winds up moving in to make monsters, Mr. Bart sort of disappears.
He can sing, he can dance, he can sell a funny line in several different styles. In a filigree supporting role, like the serpentine Carmen Ghia in “The Producers,” he can be a knockout. But here he doesn’t create a continuous character. (I felt the same way when I saw him as Leo in “The Producers.”) And he lacks that wild-eyed glint of ambition run amok that every mad scientist needs.
As Elizabeth, Victor’s high-strung fiancée, Ms. Mullally (late of the sitcom “Will & Grace”) is obviously doing her best to banish memories of the brilliant Madeline Kahn, who created the part on screen. Looking more like a matron than a madcap heiress in William Ivey Long’s swanky costumes, Ms. Mullally instead imitates several 1930s movie actresses (Mary Boland, Irene Dunne, Shirley Temple, even Margaret Dumont), without settling on any one. And though Christopher Fitzgerald is a gifted singing comic, it seems odd to cast a cherub in the role of the demented Igor.
On the plus side (the slimmer side), Sutton Foster (of “Thoroughly Modern Millie” and “The Drowsy Chaperone”) is delicious as Dr. Frankenstein’s voluptuous young assistant, who uses yodeling as foreplay. (The deadpan friskiness of her “Roll in the Hay” is a high point.) Andrea Martin, an inspired comedian, makes the role of Frau Blucher, the sinister housekeeper, all her own through artful exaggeration. And Shuler Hensley (Judd in the most recent Broadway revival of “Oklahoma!”) is terrific, turning Frankenstein’s monster into the most human character onstage.
If I haven’t said much about the musical numbers, it’s because they mostly blend together. Mr. Brooks’s songs have a throwaway quality, as if they were dashed off on the day of the performance, and mostly they lack the witty affection for period styles of “The Producers.” Ms. Stroman, too, often seems on automatic pilot as a choreographer.
There is one truly exhilarating number, though you have to sit through most of the show before it arrives. It comes when Dr. Frankenstein introduces his show-business-trained creature to the world by having him perform Irving Berlin’s “Puttin’ On the Ritz.” Ms. Stroman pulls out all the stops (and most of the usual contents of her bag of dance tricks) for this one, evoking a catalog of top-hat styles. But what really makes it fly is Mr. Hensley’s evocation of the monster’s pleasure in what he’s doing. This big galoot of a mannequin is being seduced by the singular joys of musical comedy and loving it. For the first and only time in the show, so are we.
This jolt of feeling isn’t enough to erase the impression that from its opening number, “Young Frankenstein” has never stopped screeching at you. This means that: (a) it has soon worn out its voice, and (b) it leaves you with a monster-size headache.
A funny thing happened on the way to Broadway. Actually, not so funny. When it tried out in Seattle over summer, Mel Brooks' "Young Frankenstein" had most of the elements in place to suggest a winning new monster musical was percolating in the lab. All it required was tightening and a little work to nurture its own personality, instead of just replicating the gags of Brooks' 1974 film. Well, the editing has been minimal and the development even less. If the robust advance -- reportedly north of $30 million -- is any indication, audiences hungry for a big, splashy comedy might not care. But a show that could have been a blast ends up being just good enough.
While that limitation seems destined to engender little admiration in the theater community, it's unlikely to deter the tourist traffic vital to keep an expensive production like this afloat on Broadway.
But lightning hasn't struck twice. When Brooks' "The Producers" opened in 2001, it brought a shot of adrenaline to the Rialto and a self-satirizing irreverence (subsequently much-imitated) to the musical comedy, crowning Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick as bona fide stage royalty.
"Young Frankenstein" has no shortage of chuckles, a stellar cast and generous production values (full appreciation of which can be found in Variety's Seattle review of Aug. 24). But it's a far more mechanical creation, with little of the heart or liberating belly laughs of its predecessor.
Director-choreographer Susan Stroman has crafted zesty numbers in the monster mash "Transylvania Mania" and Irving Berlin's "Puttin' on the Ritz," expanded from the film. But nothing here even comes close to the outrageousness of her "Producers" coups of toe-tapping grannies with walkers or showgirls with wiener headdresses in "Springtime for Hitler."
Comparison is unfair but inevitable. The now almost-unwatchable 1968 film of "The Producers" was not just transferred but completely rethought for the stage, acquiring a superior life of its own.
The 1974 "Young Frankenstein" film holds up as a gem distinguished by brilliant comic characterizations and a loving homage to Universal's 1930s horror classics. But it's been not so much reimagined as regurgitated, its inspired, throwaway gags ballooned into belabored Borscht Belt shtick or inflated production numbers. The show has no connection with its original satirical target, only with the film, so its humor becomes secondhand. It also frequently spills over from cheeky vulgarity into puerile crudeness.
In Seattle, it seemed that further polishing might at least camouflage these shortcomings. But Broadway provides a more unforgiving spotlight. That's particularly the case in the Hilton Theater, an intimacy-deprived barn in which it's hard to play anything, let alone comedy. Not helped by an assaultive but unclear sound mix, the cast works hard but gets a little lost onstage, and many of the jokes along with them.
That's unfortunate, given the wealth of seasoned Broadway talent assembled. Standouts are the indispensable Andrea Martin as sinister haushag Frau Blucher and Christopher Fitzgerald as hunchback Igor. Fitzgerald does the impossible by claiming a role forged by Marty Feldman as his own inexhaustibly vaudevillian comic creation.
Sutton Foster has blossomed since Seattle as lusty lab assistant Inga. Her Central European accent comes and goes, but she has a daffy sexiness that's nicely understated, and her hilariously staged "Roll in the Hay" number with yodeling chorus is a high point among Brooks and Thomas Meehan's often interchangeable songs.
Megan Mullally has an unenviable job competing with the sublime Madeline Kahn's memory as Frederick Frankenstein's well-heeled fiancee Elizabeth. But she plays the lockjaw society floozy with an amusing mix of self-love and slutty depravity.
Shuler Hensley is underused but gets to show off some fine silent-comedy skills as the fearsome Monster who just wants to be loved, while Fred Applegate does droll double duty as wooden-armed Inspector Kemp and, in one of the more successfully translated film vignettes, the Blind Hermit.
But unlike "The Producers," which had two definite protagonists in Max and Leo and a well-defined plot, "Young Frankenstein" is a gallery of caricatures that was always more about send-up than story. That places undue weight on Roger Bart's half-crazed scientist Frederick, called upon by default to carry the show.
Bart is a skilled musical comedy performer, and he's always fun to watch. And despite much-publicized recent back problems that caused Bart to miss a stretch of performances in the run-up to opening, his manic comic energy and commitment never falter. But the conception of this key role may be one of the show's weaknesses.
There was a softness to Gene Wilder's lunacy onscreen that's missing here, and while Bart can be priceless playing clowns or villains, this is not the best showcase for his performance style. Brooks and Stroman lean heavily on him to keep the motor running, which he does. But the writers give him nothing to play that might have anchored the material and made Frederick's reluctant embrace of his family legacy a real transformation instead of just another in a string of jokes.
The show's problems are not entirely confined to the stage. Even before it started previewing in town, Brooks' behemoth has attracted such persistent ill will from the New York legit community it makes the habitual sniping from pundits about Disney Theatrical ventures seem like a welcome mat.
How the team behind Tony magnet "The Producers" went from toast to supposed scourge of the town is a case study in hubris on the part of Brooks and producing partner Robert F.X. Sillerman.
First black mark came with the early decision -- after committing to play former "Producers" home the St. James Theater -- to move the show into the considerably larger and little-loved Hilton. Next was the announcement of $450 premium seats (most folks might have waited for hit status before introducing such a lofty ducat). Then came the refusal to reveal grosses, the reporting of which is standard industry practice.
A curtain-call lyric heralds a possible "Blazing Saddles" tuner next year, which seems a premature declaration from the creative team that this show is a smash and the public will be hollering for more. Maybe they'll be right. Maybe not. Either way, the insider animosity adds a further sour taste to what's likely to be fairly general disappointment in a once eagerly anticipated show.
Fans of the movie who know each scene by heart can be heard laughing and applauding the setups for the jokes, making the payoff almost redundant. That factor hasn't hurt "Monty Python's Spamalot." But if musical-makers are going to continue to mine movies as source material for anything beyond theme-park jollies, reinvention, not just reproduction, has to figure in the formula.