Thalian Association opens their 2017- 2018 season on the Main Stage of Thailain Hall with Mel Brooks’ “Young Frankenstein The Musical.” Adapted from Brooks’ 1974 film starring Gene Wilder (also co-writer of the film) and Marty Feldman, Brooks’ wrote the music and lyrics for the stage show and co-wrote the book with Thomas Meehan (possibly most well known for “Annie,” “Hairspray” and “The Producers”).
Like the musical adaptation of “The Producers,” “Young Frankenstein” differs slightly from the film. For example the stage show opens with “The Happiest Town in Town,” a number celebrating the death of Victor Frankenstein (Tim Mills) and the villagers are celebrating their liberation from the horrors inflicted upon them by the mad doctor. Their long nightmare has ended … or so they think. There is one Frankenstein left: In New York, Frederick Frankenstein (Troy Rudeseal) is making a name for himself teaching medicine. He wants nothing to do with his family’s embarrassing habit of trying to reanimate dead tissue. He and his students sing a beautiful (and very funny) ode, “The Brain,” to the beauty and mystery of the human brain and what it is capable of.
Rudeseal’s Frederick is handsome, charming and erudite. So, naturally, he is engaged to marry a very desirable, and very wealthy socialite, Elizabeth (Maggie Miller). No, he is not allowed to touch her, at all (“Please Don’t Touch Me”). Unlike Madeline Kahn in the film, Maggie Miller is incredibly desirable and sensual so that it makes the “hands off” restrictions Frederick suffers from much more humorous. Rudeseal wisely chose not to try to play Gene Wilder. Instead he gives us his own version of Frederick as a man who thought his life was on a specific upward track but takes a swift and strange turn. In many ways, he really is Dorothy in Oz: He didn’t ask for this but he has to find a way through it, and learn to trust both himself and his friends along the way. That is what he shows us while playing the straight man to innumerable jokes at his expense.
Elizabeth’s foil is the nubile, available and fantasy-inspiring Inga (Courtney Poland), a Transylvanian lab assistant filled with warmth, joy and kindness. We meet her through a hayride that manages to simultaneously fulfill and parody men’s fantasies about rolling in the hay with a healthy farm girl. She and Igor “Eye-gor” (Michael Savas) are determined to help Frederick fulfill his destiny. But none of them have reckoned with Frau Blucher (Katie Deese), housekeeper of the castle and former lover of the deceased Dr. Frankenstein. Deese plays a very funny and intriguing combination of dominatrix and abused-but-devoted former lover. “He Vas My Boyfriend” includes a fabulous send up of “Mein Herr” from “Cabaret” that must be seen to be understood.
Finally, Frederick is led to capitulate and begins to reanimate dead tissue. He and Igor set out to find a 7-foot-tall body to begin building The Monster (Chris Rickert). All the principals manage to walk a fine line between hitting the audience’s expectation from the film and taking characters in the direction the musical demands. But Savas, perhaps more than anyone else, has to face that challenge because he has Igor. No one has Marty Feldman’s eyes, and on a proscenium stage without the benefit of camera close-ups—that joke is impossible. So, Savas has to find a different humor to riff on with Rudeseal.
Meanwhile the Villagers, led by Inspector Kemp (Jordan Wolfe), decide to trick their way into the castle. As the village leader, and hence, essentially the ensemble, Wolfe is a great choice. He has a fabulous sense of comedic timing coupled with a presence that makes him a believable but human leader. Rickert brings to life the much misunderstood monster who sets off in search of life and happiness. He finds a surprising sort at the hovel of a hermit (J. R. Rodriguez), who is blind and very lonely. Together these two engage in vaudevillian antics that leave the audience in stitches. Rickert and Rodriguez have really great chemistry. I almost want to see them re-stage one of the old “The Road” films, ala Bob Hope and Bing Crosby. But all this is preparatory to Rickert getting to nail the big joke everyone was waiting for: “Puttin’ on the Ritz.” Irving Berlin could never have imagined the life this song was going to have in popular imagination. Rickert and Rudeseal are joined by the ensemble for a truly fabulous rendition that blends humor with great showmanship. Perhaps that is the best way to describe this production: a combination of humor and great showmanship that makes for an entertaining and wonderful evening.
Besides bringing Frederick to the stage, Rudeseal also designed a pretty detailed and remarkable series of sets to create not only a Transylvanian castle and New York medical school classroom, but also a mad scientist’s laboratory, and my favorite: the revolving library shelf. The sets are not only incredibly functional but complete with light-up dials and meters for the laboratory, and a kitchen for the hermit’s hovel. Also, Jen Iapalucci’s costumes were a plethora of visual wonder! With an ensemble of almost 40, in addition to the principal characters, she really rose to the occasion with lovely detail for each piece.
Truly, “Young Frankenstein” is a great opening for the season. The ensemble is really remarkable and make the assortment of young med students, villagers, socialites bound for a sea voyage, horses, ghouls, and dancers come to life with fabulous animation all while singing and dancing their way into our hearts. The principal characters really meet the audience’s expectation from the film as a starting point and then soar off into another direction. It is a laugh a minute, but held up with really solid singing, dancing and acting that make all the jokes look effortless. For a very, very entertaining evening, “Young Frankenstein” is a great choice.