Friday, 13 October 2017

Theatre review: Young Frankenstein

Mel Brooks' musical adaptation of his own classic film The Producers was a Broadway and West End smash hit, so it was no surprise that the same creative team would try to follow it up. But giving Young Frankenstein the same treatment resulted in an overblown flop, which is why it's taken a decade to cross the Atlantic. But in that time Brooks has continued to work on it, and although I don't have anything to compare it to the version that director/choreographer Susan Stroman has brought to London is, although problematic, hugely entertaining and crowd-pleasing. If one of the criticisms of the 2007 production was that it was too much of a big-budget juggernaut, that's been amended: Although there's a large cast with a vast amount of costume changes (designed by William Ivey Long,) Beowulf Boritt's set tends for a more old-fashioned look with curtain backdrops, and the whole show has a music-hall feel.

And that's appropriate for a show that not only references that entertainment style, but whose breaking of the fourth wall is mostly concerned with reminding us how low-budget the monster movies it spoofs were.

Hadley Fraser plays American anatomy professor Frederick Frankenstein (it's pronounced Fronkensteen,) who just wants to escape the reputation of his notorious grandfather Victor. But when the latter dies and leaves him his castle in Transylvania, Frederick finds it hard to resist recreating his experiment, and before long is trying to resurrect the brain of a noted humanitarian, in the body of a recently-deceased Monster (Shuler Hensley.) Brooks' adaptation sticks closely to his original film, down to recycling the best-loved jokes - and it's clearly the right way to go, if the audience reaction to the recreation of the most famous sequence, "Puttin' On The Ritz," is anything to go by.

But there's also room for the actors to give the show its own identity. Fraser doesn't impersonate the late Gene Wilder although there's suggestions of him in some of his line deliveries; likewise Dianne Pilkington, whose Elizabeth - Frederick's demanding and repressed fiancée - occasionally carries echoes of the much-loved Madeline Kahn without actually copying her. OK, so just doing what passes for research for a moment and wow, Madeline Kahn's been dead for a lot longer than I realised. No wonder the world started going to shit as soon as the nineties were over, if they took Madeline Kahn with them. Madeline Kahn could have beaten Trump. Madeline Kahn could have stopped Brexit. What I'm saying is, Madeline Kahn's been dead for nearly twenty years and I'm still sad about it.

Oh, right, I was reviewing a fun musical. Short of acquiring a thyroid condition Ross Noble can't really try to impersonate Marty Feldman, and he's been well-cast as Igor, a role which does respond well to a comedian basically bringing a bit of silliness and audience interaction to it. And then there's Lesley Joseph appearing to have the time of her life as a less terrifying version of Frau Blücher (though she does still scare the horses,) whose daft Cabaret parody "He Vas My Boyfriend" is one of the better songs.

Where I found the show problematic is in its treatement of women - there's old-fashioned comedy and then there's Carry On gags that are best left in the past, and a song that basically builds to a group of women singing "Tits! Tits! Tits! Tits!" is the line, as is getting Summer Strallen to spend an entire number finding excuses to flash her knickers at the audience. Apart from a few references to women being unable to resist big-dicked men this does calm down a bit though, and most of the setpieces work - notably the Monster's painful encounter with Patrick Clancy's blind hermit. Josh Wilmott stands out of the ensemble as a villager annoyed with how stereotypical their torch-and-pitchfork wielding mob is, but everyone's putting in strong work here. Needless to say this isn't the show for you if you're after subtlety, but if you can find a seat in the Garrick with a view of at least some of the stage, there's a lot of laughs to be had. (Also, 2-and-a-half hours isn't bad for a musical so it doesn't outstay its welcome either.)

Young Frankenstein by Mel Brooks and Thomas Meehan, based on the film by Mel Brooks and Gene Wilder, is booking until the 10th of February at the Garrick Theatre.

Running time: 2 hours 25 minutes including interval.

Photo credit: Manuel Harlan.

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