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Monster task is a struggle

Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK -- There’s one moment in Mel Brooks’ 1974 movie “Young Frankenstein” that seemed destined to have a life on the stage. It’s the hilarious tap-dance number in which Gene Wilder, playing the amiably neurotic Dr. Frederick Frankenstein (pronounced “Fronken-steen”), coaxes his monster into a duet of “Puttin’ on the Ritz” to prove that this hulking, mentally deranged, potentially homicidal ex-corpse is really just a showboating pussycat with an unfortunate speech problem.

That scene, more glitteringly drawn out in the new musical version of “Young Frankenstein,” which had its Broadway opening Thursday at the Hilton Theatre, does indeed provide plenty of buoyant fun when performed live. But anyone hoping to be transported to giddy new heights may end up disappointed. It’s the cinematic memory of Wilder’s daft zeal and Peter Boyle’s shambling patchwork of body parts that lingers after the final twirls and highflying kicks of Susan Stroman’s choreography.

The same can be said for this fitfully entertaining show, which tickles its audience into reasonably high spirits yet doesn’t quite establish the autonomous existence that “The Producers,” that other Brooks screen-to-stage transplant, sensationally pulled off. But then that may be setting the bar too high. Not every musical adaptation can win a record-breaking 12 Tonys and become the hot ticket among the pay-anything expense account crowd.

Collaborating again with Thomas Meehan (who co-wrote the book) and Stroman (who directed as well as choreographed), Brooks is testing whether he’s a glamorous Hollywood interloper or an honest-to-goodness Broadway franchise. But a delightfully nutty addition to the tourist-dollar-chasing pack might be more accurate.

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Sure, the new musical -- replete with the kind of pastiche novelty songs that Brooks has made his specialty -- has deliciously diverting patches, but too often it leaves us noticeably shy of that laugh-induced state of delirium he has always been better at instigating than sustaining.

“Young Frankenstein,” a re-imagining of the old horror flick by a vaudevillian given to parody, puns and sex-crazed punch lines, was the movie in which he strung out his shtick for a longer stretch than usual. Which may explain why expectations for this show, along with its ticket prices (premium seats fetch a ludicrous $450), soared. We enter wanting to bust a gut, so no wonder we’re a little let down when we leave with only a nostalgic grin.

The question isn’t so much what’s wrong as what’s not ecstatically right. Let’s start with the Busby Berkeley busyness that Stroman keeps distractingly conjuring. These routines titillate, but they’re belabored, and in a show that’s about 20 minutes too long, they begin to grate.

In the central role of Dr. Frankenstein, Roger Bart, unforgettable though he was as flaming Carmen Ghia in “The Producers,” doesn’t have the wide-shouldered zaniness to carry this large an undertaking, never mind stifle any latent longings for Wilder. Bart had to miss quite a few preview performances because of a bad back, and it’s hard to resist the armchair diagnosis that the load of this overbuilt spectacle has been simply too much for an actor whose distinctive loopiness is more evident in second- or third-banana roles.

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The first act is disappointingly leaden. After a humorous opening in which the denizens of Transylvania Heights dance in the streets because Dr. Victor von Frankenstein (1833-1934) has finally kicked the bucket, the comedy nose-dives.

But let’s not pass over this inspired initial number too quickly. Costumed by William Ivey Long to resemble a geographically confused chorus (are they Scandinavians without a compass?), these townspeople can’t conceal their glee over the funeral procession. The late Dr. Frankenstein’s only living relative is the dean of anatomy at the Johns, Miriam and Anthony Hopkins School of Medicine, and even the village idiot knows that no New York doctor, thank God, is going to schlep all the way to Romania to take over the dubious family business of reanimating the dead.

This mix of old-world goofiness and new-world fizziness is classic Brooks. Unfortunately, the medical school lecture that follows comes off like a faded Xerox of the movie’s slapstick brilliance, and the farewell between Dr. Frankenstein, who journeys to his ancestors’ castle to collect his rightful inheritance, and Elizabeth (Megan Mullally), his fiancee, strains after its comic effects. (One notable exception: Dr. Frankenstein’s “Pardon me boy, is this the Transylvania station?” still elicits roars.)

Facing a challenge as Herculean as Bart’s, Mullally tries to reinvent a role that was indelibly created by Madeline Kahn. It’s a no-win situation, but she gives it her robust all and, like the show itself, she grows in confidence in the second act.

Playing Elizabeth as a lockjaw Park Avenue princess, Mullally sneaks in a bit of Karen Walker from “Will & Grace,” a tactic that unfailingly gets a rise even if raises the possibility of some kind of multiple-personality disorder. And able to belt with the best of them, she knows how to make a substantial comic meal out of Brooks’ schlocky songs.

The supporting cast, though also struggling against invidious comparisons, employs some top-drawer talent. Sutton Foster, who plays Inga, the blond bombshell lab assistant, might not have the radiant levity of Teri Garr, but she has more musical theater skill than can be fully exploited here.

Christopher Fitzgerald’s Igor (pronounced Eye-gore) galumphs around like a newly discovered Marx brother in a Boris Karloff picture. Fred Applegate transforms Inspector Kemp, with his detachable prosthetic parts, into a sight gag with lots of pop. And Shuler Hensley’s Monster, although not the most affecting of beasts, has a distinct debonair streak.

There’s one performer who exceeds her superb predecessor, and that’s Andrea Martin as Frau Blucher (cue the sound of terrified horses), the role originated by Cloris Leachman. Martin’s complete conviction in the madness of the moment combined with her natural idiosyncrasy (the secret of Wilder’s and Kahn’s endless watchability) hints at the startlingly fresh “Young Frankenstein” that might have been.

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What does it say about a musical when its sets, designed by Robin Wagner and atmospherically lighted by Peter Kaczorowski, are most impressive when enhanced by film? The most visually spectacular moments occur when Igor drives Dr. Frankenstein and Inga, who are enjoying a “roll in the hay” meet-and-greet, to the castle and Transylvania whisks by in all its black-and-white eeriness.

This isn’t to suggest that Brooks should have left well enough alone and not even attempted his mad histrionic experiment. In fact, one of the best scenes in the film, the encounter between the monster and the blind hermit, turns out to be just as uproarious onstage. Credit Applegate, who takes on the small part that Gene Hackman made prodigiously hilarious, for yet another display of physical comedy prowess.

Moribund as it sometimes is, “Young Frankenstein” still flickers with life. Maybe in some future incarnation, under direction less showy than Stroman’s and with a cast of peerless oddballs on a par with Martin and Applegate, this monster musical will allow us to temporarily forget Brooks’ frightfully funny original.

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charles.mcnulty@latimes.com


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