Friday, February 15, 2008

Young Frankenstein (The SOB Review)

Young Frankenstein (The SOB Review) – Hilton Theatre, New York, NY

**1/2 (out of ****)

With all due apologies to Jacqueline Susann, could it be that once is enough?

Regular readers will recall that I took in one of the very first previews of Mel BrooksYoung Frankenstein last summer, during its world premiere engagement in Seattle. And boy, was I engaged. Even though I realized what I was seeing would be fine tuned and shortened, I laughed myself silly.

And boy, oh boy, was I ever surprised when the unusually harsh backlash against the show intensified all the more with some truly devastating critical reviews. After having been so taken by the show in Seattle, I couldn’t help but believe that most critics allowed the much publicized foibles to seep into their largely venomous views of the show itself.

So I finally took in the final product at Broadway’s Hilton Theatre. This time, I even managed to snag one of those front-row seats in the daily lottery. But boy, did I ever walk away feeling not quite as engaged.

What happened?

As noted in a previous post, the last few months have not exactly been a picnic for me, so you’d think that this all-out candy show would have served as the perfect confection to allow me to forget about life for a while. But it wasn’t.

As expected, the show was winnowed down, although not as much as it should have been. The most noticeable cut was of one superfluous song that really didn’t fit in the Seattle tryout – a tune for Megan Mullally called “Alone.”

What made me enjoy Young Frankenstein so immensely last summer was my personal affection for the film version. I realize now that like so many other fans of the original movie, my eager anticipation for seeing every element -- right down to the “nice knockers” -- and hearing every last funny line delivered anew, live on stage, was what made seeing it for the first time so much fun.

But as with any second viewing, you tend to notice things that you overlooked the first time or chose to ignore.

In my overlooked department was its relatively simplistic score. Mel Brooks' efforts results in a curious cross between predictable thirties-style vaudeville shtick (“Together Again For The First Time” and “Transylvania Mania”) and klezmer band music (“Join The Family Business” and “He Vas My Boyfriend”).

Also overlooked was how this Young Frankenstein is about excess. It’s a surprise that the kitchen sink never actually materializes because Brooks throws just about everything else into it. Virtually every joke, sight gag and song is beaten into the ground, just in case we missed it the first time. At least it remains visually stunning.

Among the elements I ignored earlier was Mel and Thomas Meehan’s propensity toward bathroom humor, along with Brooks' apparent and ultimately annoying phallic fixation. One can’t help wonder if the little feller has some issues of his own.

But Steve, you ask, do you still think the show is any good? Well, yes. It is much better than most critics will ever give it credit for, and if you are a fan of the movie, you’ll certainly get a thrill out of seeing this show and its Monster literally come to life.

The first act is really quite a visual treat, from the initial ride to Frankenstein’s castle to the moment when The Monster comes alive. The act also offers the best performances by its cast, particularly Christopher Fitzgerald (Igor), Andrea Martin (Frau Blucher), and Sutton Foster (Inga). Check out my initial preview review to see why these folks don’t disappoint.

But aside from the spectacular -- and in the end, spectacularly excessive – “Puttin’ On The Ritz” number, the second act falls apart. It’s not aided by the admittedly popular Hermit scene, which fails to move the story along in any meaningful way, other than to give the solid Fred Applegate a chance to shine. The act then limps along to a rather lame ending, and is not helped by its shameless come on that next up would be a musical version of “Blazing Saddles.”

For any fan of the film version, you’ll feel like you’re together again for the first time. But if you’re like me, once was enough.

This is Steve On Broadway (SOB).

Click here for tickets.

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At 15 February, 2008, Blogger Esther said...

You know, I did leave "Young Frankenstein" feeling kind of underwhelmed. You've hit on a lot of the things I found disappointing. I thought maybe it was just me. I was getting a cold and I wasn't feeling well when I saw it. Everyone around me seemed to be laughing nonstop.

Some of the bits I expected to laugh at, like the opening scene with Dr. Frankenstein, were kind of pedestrian. On the cast CD, you can hear Roger Bart say "it's pronounced Frahn-ken-steen" and it's still underwhelming.

But I agree there are some memorable performances, especially Christopher Fitzgerald's Igor, and some visually stunning elements, like the ride to the castle and seeing the Monster come to life.

And even though it doesn't add much to the story, I think they did have to keep the hermit scene. Once you've decided to re-create the movie down to the last line, how could you leave out one of the most memorable scenes? The audience was definitely anticipating it. And it was funny.

Mel comes from the Borscht Belt, and I guess that kind of humor isn't known for its subtlety! There's some of the same type of humor in Spamalot, and I just found it tiresome after awhile, although everyone else lapped it up!

Someone at work asked me how I liked Young Frankenstein and I said, "Good, not great." I agree, if you love the movie, there's a lot to enjoy. But I've seen nine Broadway musicals now, and another half-dozen on tour, and I've just seen so many that I've liked much better. If I could only recommend one, I don't think this is the one I would pick.

At 15 February, 2008, Blogger Chris Caggiano said...

Steve, I still think you might giving the show too much credit. Perhaps your love of the movie is coloring your view of the show.

But, then again, it's possible I'm being overly harsh on the show, although listening to the CD it's clear the score is not one of the show's key assets.

Yeah, there are some great performers in the show, but what's going to happen when they leave? The lasting substance of the show has to do with the quality of the book and score, and both of these are tremendously wanting in Young Frankenstein.

At 15 February, 2008, Blogger Steve On Broadway (SOB) said...

Esther and Chris, Appreciate both your comments.

I admit I was perhaps just a tad too giddy in my original assessment, but judging from what fellow audience members had to say on my way out from the Hilton, they had that same giddy reaction as my first time seeing it.

But in seeing it again, I still think on the whole it delivers what it's supposed to - a musical version of the film. And it is quite glorious to behold in set, lighting and projection design.

And I did award it with exactly one less star than I did a half year ago in Seattle. After sitting through all the half, one and two star productions, it still shines brighter than any of those and thus deserves the 2 1/2 stars I gave it.

We'll just have to agree to disagree, but like you've said before, that's what good for blog readers, right?


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