Friday, November 15, 2013

Review of Musical Theatre West’s Young Frankenstein

Musical Theatre West has kicked off their 61st season with Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein, and unfortunately it was not entirely what I hoped it would be…

Musical Theatre West has been around since 1952, when it started out as the Whittier Civic Light Opera. Their productions evolved over time, and they went from being an all-volunteer operation to producing full seasons. They currently perform at the Richard and Karen Carpenter Performing Arts Center at Cal State Long Beach, which is a lovely venue with plenty of conveniently located parking.

This musical is based on Mel Brooks’ 1974 film, Young Frankenstein. After Brooks had such a huge success with his stage production of The Producers (also adapted from one of his movies), he went to work on this one. He wrote the songs and lyrics and Thomas Meehan contributed to the book. The show opened in 2007 and played on Broadway for a little over a year; since then it has been through a couple of national tours, and now it is available for regional productions.

The plot and characters mirror the movie fairly closely, and the few changes that Brooks and Meehan made do not alter the final outcome. This is a musical, and all of the leads (the good doctor, Elizabeth, Inga, Frau Blucher, Igor, the Inspector and the monster) each get to take on at least one song.

Young Frankenstein was well casted, and all of the leads did a super job. Their singing, dancing, acting and comic timing were spot on. The male leads include Zachary Ford as Dr.Frankenstein, Ben Liebert as Igor, and Danny Blaylock as the monster. They put on the big boy pants by taking on the roles that are personified by Gene Wilder, Marty Feldman and Peter Boyle. Liebert stole the show because his personality shined through consistently, and his character had the best lines which he nailed every time.

The ladies did a lovely job too, with Andi Davis as the lovely Inga, Tracy Lore as Frau Blucher and Rebecca Ann Johnson as Elizabeth (the doctor’s girlfriend). Each of these characters was more lewd than the next, culminating in a refreshing bit of girl/girl touching. All three are very good singers, and I could find no flaws with their performances, which is quite a compliment and they also face comparisons with the top-flight movie cast.

Lauren Kadel did well to follow the original direction and choreography that was put together by Susan Stroman. This is a complex (and lengthy) show, and it flowed nicely from scene to scene with no distractions. The sets were clever, but seemed a bit worn in spots, but keep in mind that my seat was very close to the stage. From that vantage point I did have the opportunity to see how good Jamie Brown’s costumes were. Jean-Yves Tessier’s lighting was very effective making the shadow dance scene come off wonderfully. Oh yes -- I loved the giant monster puppet.

The 14-piece orchestra was under the direction of Corey Hirsch, and they did well, but I was puzzled that the musician’s names did not appear in the program. A big plus was that the sound was right on track with a good mix, and the actors/singers were easy to understand.

It sounds like all of the right pieces are there, so what is my problem? Young Frankenstein is weak and is just not a very good stage musical. Unlike Brooks’ The Producers, this show is based on a hugely popular movie, so many of the comedic gags have been seen before. With most of the surprises gone, the flaws in the simplistic songs and awkward lyrics are very obvious-- Mel Brooks should collaborate more when he writes his musicals. Brooks’ score is simplistic and derivative of other works, and the lyrics were overly complicated and relied on dated comedic references. As a whole, none of the songs stood out as being the least bit special. Also, the nearly three-hour run time (an hour and a half to the intermission!) is a bit much to take.

If you decide to check Young Frankenstein out, it is playing through this weekend, and seats are still available. Be mindful that there is plenty of bawdy adult content, and I would certainly not take a child to this show.

The Musical Theatre West 2013-2014 season is looking up after this one, with The Music Man, ‘S Wonderful and Beauty and the Beast on tap. Check out their website at for details about tickets and packages.

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