‘Frankenstein’ redux

18th Dec 2009

Review of Young Frankenstein at the Kennedy Center Opera House

The funniest scene in “Young Frankenstein,” the Mel Brooks musical adapted from his 1974 film, now onstage at the Kennedy Center, occurs toward the end. The show’s eponymous doctor leads his monstrous creation in a tap-dancing routine. Performing a duet of “Puttin’ on the Ritz,” Dr. Frankenstein gestures to the bumbling, hulking man-beast, who has you in stitches from the moment he starts to belt out barely decipherable lines. The sight of the horror genre’s most famous character parading around stage in topcoat and tails and lumbering his way through a 1920s dance routine is hilarious.

This revelation probably won’t come as a surprise to the film version’s many fans, as its most memorable scene — one that rightfully has earned itself a place in the pantheon of American motion-picture comedy — has the magical pairing of Gene Wilder as Dr. Frankenstein and Peter Boyle as the Monster doing their best to imitate Fred Astaire. And therein lies the problem for the stage production: No matter how wonderfully Roger Bart and Shuler Hensley re-create the roles of, respectively, Dr. Frankenstein and the Monster, one keeps coming back to the same conclusion: The film was funnier.

This wouldn’t be a dilemma if Mr. Brooks and his co-writer, Thomas Meehan, had come up with enough new material to make “Young Frankenstein” something utterly different yet also true to its source material. They did that for “The Producers,” Mr. Brooks’ 2001 Tony Award record-breaking musical adapted from his 1968 cult film. Unlike “The Producers,” in which every song is catchy and stands alone as a distinct work of art, “Young Frankenstein” depends mostly upon gags from the original film (and a smattering of the ribald, Brooksian double entendres) to advance through its 2½-hour running time.

Mr. Brooks, who was celebrated as a Kennedy Center Honoree earlier this month at the very theater where his latest musical creation is being performed, borrows heavily from “The Producers” here, and in some rather obvious ways. Both shows have leggy blond ingenues with thick European accents. In “The Producers,” she’s Swedish and named Ulla; in “Young Frankenstein,” she’s German and goes by Inga. Likewise, there’s more than a hint of similarity between the Nazi librettist of “The Producers,” Franz Liebkind, and the Teutonic Inspector Kemp of “Young Frankenstein,” a likeness only partially explained by their being played by the same actor, Brad Oscar.

Whatever the laziness of the book and lyrics, the quality of the production is heightened with strong performances by actors working hard not to impersonate their film predecessors. Mr. Oscar doubles as a blind hermit, whose slapstick routine with the Monster in the second act, involving a pot of boiling chicken-noodle soup and a cigar-lighting gone awry, is brilliant. As he did with the flamboyant, mincing Carmen Ghia in “The Producers,” Roger Bart makes Dr. Frankenstein his own — hilarious, neurotic — not an easy thing to do with a character originated by Mr. Wilder. And as Mr. Bart’s comedic sidekick, Cory English hams it up appropriately as the hunchbacked Igor; watching the two of them spar with each other is worth the price of admission.

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