No one should be surprised that Mel Brooks is spending the latter part of his career transforming his film comedies into Broadway musicals -- first the smash The Producers of a decade ago, then 2007's less heralded Young Frankenstein. A gleefully entertaining road production of Young Frankenstein began an Overture Hall run Tuesday night.
For there are production numbers of greater and lesser elaborateness in numerous Brooks films, from The Producers' "Springtime for Hitler" and Blazing Saddles' "I'm Tired" to the dreamy pas de deux of vagrants in Life Stinks. His uneven History of the World: Part I is seared permanently into my being thanks to the delirious song-and-dance extravaganza Brooks makes of the Spanish Inquisition.
And then there is "Puttin' on the Ritz," perhaps the signature sequence of 1974's Young Frankenstein, which spoofed Universal's iconic 1931 take on Mary Shelley's Promethean yarn. In Brooks' film, the famous mad scientist's grandson creates a new monster and shows him off -- in a top-hat-and-tails rendition of the Irving Berlin tune. The message suggested by that film sequence is made even plainer in the outlandish stage version, and I think it also is the theme of Brooks' long career: that to be fully human is to be in show business -- and preferably the kind of over-the-top show business that employs kick lines and fart jokes in equal measure.
"Puttin' on the Ritz" comes near the end of the show, and as choreographed by director Susan Stroman, it is a wonder. The audience has already seen the towering Preston Truman Boyd, as the green-skinned monster, convey unlikely pathos with grunts and lurching movements. Over the course of this number, I was surprised to find myself moved as he gradually transformed into a smooth showman, one surrounded by choristers who tap dance wearing shoes modeled on his signature platforms.
You needn't have seen the film to enjoy the show, but if you have, you'll be right at home. Familiar scenes and dialogue are recapitulated, and the gags you remember are here, including the fussy pronunciation of his name insisted on by young Dr. Frederick Frankenstein. He is played ably by Christopher Ryan, an amiable comedian and a good dancer who is brasher and less enigmatic than Gene Wilder is in the film. As the show gets under way, he declares himself a man of science who repudiates his grandfather's work. But word comes that the old man has died, and Frederick must go to Transylvania and handle the estate.
The show hits its stride several numbers in, when Frederick meets his new servant Igor. Igor is portrayed by Cory English, who performed the role on Broadway, and he steals the show with his expert mugging. Igor and Frederick's energetic duet, "Together Again," recalls the vaudevillian antics of the "Fit As a Fiddle" sequence in Singin' in the Rain.
At the Frankenstein castle, Frederick settles in with beautiful lab assistant Inga (Synthia Link) and mysterious caretaker Frau Blucher (Joanna Glushak). As in the film, Blucher's name repeatedly startles the horses. Glushak nearly wrests the show from English with her number "He Vas My Boyfriend," about her dalliance with the elder Frankenstein. She is condescending and odd, and at times seems to be channeling Madeline Kahn channeling Marlene Dietrich in Blazing Saddles.
Soon Frederick is engrossed by his grandfather's research and makes a monster of his own. The villagers panic. Meanwhile, Frederick's difficult fiancée Elizabeth (Janine Divita) shows up to cause more trouble.
All this unfolds at a breakneck comic pace, and the stagecraft, even scaled down for the touring production, is pleasing. I was particularly impressed by the sound and light show that accompanies the monster-making number "Life, Life." Another design highlight is the wild prop horses seen in Inga's "Roll in the Hay." It's typical of the show's inventiveness that this song has been fleshed out from just a couple of bars' worth of singing by Teri Garr in the film. "Roll in the Hay" also is an example of the cheerful bawdiness of the show, which is very interested in its characters' primary and secondary sex characteristics.
The songs, written by Brooks, are quite funny, and their old-fashioned musical-comedy splashiness gestures back to a Broadway that never knew Andrew Lloyd Webber, much less uninspired jukebox musicals like Mamma Mia! I suppose that means Young Frankenstein isn't breaking much new ground, artistically speaking. But that doesn't trouble me at all, because this production is so well executed. It entertains in that merciless Mel Brooks way, which turns out to be remarkably well suited to stage musicals. They prioritize big gestures above all else, and Mel Brooks is a master of those.