"Young Frankenstein" has a roughly $20 million budget, some $450 orchestra seats, an iconic 1974 source movie, performers with better pedigrees than the Queen of England's corgis, and heaps of goodwill flowing from the way its eminently lovable creator, the 81-year-old Mel Brooks, made the Rialto roar in 2001 with "The Producers.'
And yet it's a colossal -- and, boy, is this show a monster -- disappointment.
The central problem, which should have been fixed out of town, is perfectly simple. The passive central character doesn't seem to want anything in particular. And thus nothing drives the show.
Nobody was expecting Brooks to recast his famed homage to James Whale's 1931 "Frankenstein" movie as "War and Peace." But even satiric musicals need something energetic to propel the show along. It can be a quest to produce the worst Broadway show on Earth. A desperate need to find the Holy Grail. Whatever. It doesn't even have to make sense. But it has to be there.
It ain't here. The storytelling mostly is flat and anemic. And Roger Bart's Dr. Frederick Frankenstein is a pleasingly quirky but curiously passive and retreating presence. This long and inorganic show just seems to happen around him (rather as if he were in a movie) without his driving even so much as a hay wagon.
Whereas "The Producers" felt naturally reborn as a Broadway musical, "Young Frankenstein" is more of a very expensive and expansive live re-creation of the movie's most beloved moments, replete with a musical score that packs some orchestral excitement but not as much legitimacy. There are some laughs, several inventive lyrics and a few moments of inspired theatrical shtick (much of it involving Fred Applegate's hermit). But at these prices, that's really not delivering the goods.
The other big mistake Brooks made was allowing himself to be held hostage by a more corporate, and thus irony-free, aesthetic. I'm not speaking here about the ticket prices or the refusal to conform to established Broadway practices, although those choices surely squandered some insider goodwill. It's the uncomfortable look and feel of the show.
At the root of Brooks' comedic work is a sense of handmade anarchy, crafted by an outsider ever ready to pop the balloons of pomposity. Despite its size, "The Producers" still had that sense of the striving little guys. You sat there rooting away.
But Robin Wagner's set for "Young Frankenstein" is an enormous, high-tech conflagration of laboratory machinery, replete with levers, pulleys, digitized backdrops and a monster-making platform that rises, pointlessly, all the way to the heavens. These oversize, weirdly unfunny visuals most remind you of the biggest corporate show you ever saw, gone horribly wrong. It's just not the right mood for a movie we associate with good times, smart, silly laughs and cheap beer.
Granted, the source was trickier this time around. "Young Frankenstein," the movie, has a meandering plot. And director Susan Stroman was faced with the tricky challenge of not repeating herself, which probably was an impossibly unfair task. If you've seen "The Producers," the number in "YF" in which dancers dance on colossal monster-size footpads will remind you of the walker ballet. And Stroman does another of her famous dream-restore sequences when Dr. F. falls asleep in the first act. It's a typically spectacular piece of staging, but it brings to mind "I Want To Be a Producer."
Fans of the monster movie won't much mind that. And there are some sequences that work; the "Young Frankenstein" train isn't so much in a wreck as firmly off its rails.
In a cast that includes the pleasant Sutton Foster (as Inga), the daffy but ill-moored Megan Mullally (as Elizabeth) and the droll Andrea Martin (as Frau Blucher), the creature who comes off best is Shuler Hensley's The Monster, a pleasingly human and humane creation, despite his bulk.
As one surely hoped, the legendary "Puttin' on the Ritz" sequence is once again hilarious. Or, at least, it's hilarious for the first five minutes, before the whole number gets expanded, amplified and blown up in one of those can't-stop, slightly panicked, overproduced signals that a highly skilled creative team has been torn from its roots.
"Young Frankenstein" plays on Broadway at the Hilton Theatre, 213 W. 42nd St. Call 212-307-4100.