The title Young Frankenstein is an immediately recognizable relic in the canon of one of the greatest comedic minds of our time: Mel Brooks. And the title role was historically created by the great Gene Wilder, so building on the tradition of this classic film is no small task. Thankfully, the musical version of Young Frankenstein rises to the challenge, preserving the heart of the film while adding a fresh spin and musical framework with music and lyrics by Brooks himself. Fans of the film, which also starred Peter Boyle, Teri Garr, Cloris Leachman, Kenneth Mars, Marty Feldman, Madeline Kahn, and Gene Hackman, should be pleasantly surprised to find how this spectacular stage version measures up.
The show starts off with a peppy number (“The Happiest Town in Town”) by the townspeople of Transylvania Heights. It then moves to an introduction to the serious, studious Dr. Frederick Frankenstein (ably performed in the current tour by A.J. Holmes), who professes his love of real science over the mad antics of his grandfather in “The Brain” (Broadway fans like myself enjoy the lyrical and musical allusion to South Pacific‘s “There is Nothing Like a Dame”). His girlfriend, Elizabeth (portrayed by the strong-voiced Lexie Dorsett), is introduced in the titillating number “Please Don’t Touch Me,” the first of many pieces of sexual humor, in which his hilarious frustration at having to wait until their wedding night to consummate the relationship is played out.
The comedic momentum continues when Frederick meets Igor (played enthusiastically by Christopher Timson), and they perform a perfectly choreographed song, “Together Again.” One of the highlights of the show for me was the introduction of Inga (played in perfect character by Elizabeth Pawlowski), the eager, young lab assistant whose innuendo-heavy song, “Roll in the Hay,” proved to be one of the funniest pieces of physical comedy in the show. Their trip to the castle in a hay-filled wagon provides plenty of comic bumping, gyrating, and awkward positioning, not to mention an impressive vocal performance despite the rough ride.
The introduction of Frau Blucher (portrayed by the seasoned Pat Sibley), a surly woman whose name memorably elicits the neighing of horses no matter where she is, leads into her hilariously blunt song about the departed Victor von Frankenstein, “He Vas My Boyfriend.” After the creation of the Monster (channeled by Rory Donovan), which features some dramatic special effects, Act One ends with a number that exemplifies Broadway at its best. “Transylvania Mania” pulls out all the stops and shows off the choreography of 5-time Tony-winner Susan Stroman (The Producers). It doesn’t get much better than that.
The beginning of Act Two features a touching moment between Frederick and Inga, “Listen to Your Heart,” followed by another comic number from Elizabeth, “Surprise.” Another truly outstanding moment from the show, however, occurs when the Monster stumbles into the shack of an old blind man (played and sung beautifully by Britt Hancock) in “Please Send Me Someone.” This is the best sequence of physical comedy in the show. Accidentally spilling hot soup on someone’s lap can be funny, but the precise orchestration of the bits in this scene is spot-on and laugh-out-loud funny. After the signature “Puttin’ on the Ritz” scene, which features the Monster’s unique rendition of the classic Irving Berlin song and some more spectacular choreography, Elizabeth returns with her most perfectly naughty song, “Deep Love.” Her initially unwanted tryst with the hulking Monster soon turns into an obsession that is deliciously dirty and a highlight of the show.
Young Frankenstein is a treat for both fans of the movie and Broadway devotees alike. It is one of the best hybrids of truly great source material and complementary musical features that I have ever seen. With well-written songs featuring considerable vocal talent, bits of finely tuned physical comedy, lavish dance numbers, and the comedy of Mel Brooks, what’s not to love?