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Hoping for a warmer welcome in the West End than it received on Broadway back in 2007, the Young Frankenstein musical finally arrives in London in a streamlined, revamped form. A spry 91-year-old Mel Brooks has personally supervised this relaunch, which retains the show’s original director and choreographer, Susan Stroman. Brooks and Stroman had previously collaborated on the multi-award-winning 2001 stage version of The Producers, and with considerably less success on its 2005 screen adaptation.
Based on the 1974 Gene Wilder film, which Brooks directed and co-wrote, Young Frankenstein was overshadowed on Broadway by the huge success of The Producers, a record-breaking smash that ran six years. A decade on, with a little more distance, this campy spoof of vintage Hollywood horror tropes deserves to be judged on its own merits. Even so, it still feels like a lesser prospect overall, a boisterous crowd-pleaser powered by vaudevillian shtick, labored slapstick and creaky double entendres.
A stellar cast, or a dazzling stage production, might have made this London reboot a must-see theatrical event. It offers neither, alas, though Brooks and Stroman have trimmed around a half-hour of running time from the original Broadway version, dropping the opening scene in Transylvania plus a later dream sequence. They have also axed a couple of songs, “The Happiest Town” and “Join the Family Business,” replacing them with a pair of perky new numbers, “It Could Work” and “Hang Him ‘Til He’s Dead,” which rev up the pace and add an extra shot of macabre humor. In addition, Brooks claims to have “cockneyed up” the dialogue for London audiences.
The cast mainly comprises London stage veterans and minor British TV comedy talents. Hadley Fraser takes the title role of Doctor Frederick Frankenstein, a feted anatomy expert who is mortally ashamed of his infamous mad-scientist grandfather. All the same, he takes delight in being summoned to Transylvania to inherit his grandfather’s castle and laboratory, even postponing his impending nuptials to his snooty Park Avenue fiancee, Elizabeth (Dianne Pilkington).
In Transylvania, proudly flaunting his credentials as a high-minded man of science, Frankenstein initially resists temptation to embrace the family traditions of grave-robbing and corpse reanimation. But a little encouragement from rubber-limbed hunchback Igor (Ross Noble), flirtatious lab assistant Inga (Summer Strallen) and stern housekeeper Frau Blucher (Lesley Joseph) pushes him over to the dark side. The doctor is soon hard at work on creating a rampaging man-monster (Shuler Hensley, the sole Broadway holdover in the London cast), which inevitably inflames the vengeful ire of pitchfork-wielding villagers.
Fraser is sunny and dynamic but a little colorless as Frankenstein, his springy presence the polar opposite of Wilder’s soulfully deadpan screen performance. Strallen does decent work with her one-dimensional bimbo role, originally played by Teri Garr. But stand-up comic Noble gets most of the big laughs, surpassing the film’s Marty Feldman as he milks Igor’s full potential for physical clowning. Hensley is also great value, most notably during his fleet-footed star turn in the second-act showstopper, a razzle-dazzle full-cast version of Irving Berlin’s “Puttin‘ On the Ritz.”
But for all its cosmetic tweaks in London, Young Frankenstein retains some key flaws that made it fizzle on Broadway. Boisterous and brash, this is a show that bellows its broad jokes in your face instead of charming you with subtle wit. The Brooks school of humor, all Borscht Belt mugging and bawdy innuendo, already felt pretty dated when the movie was released over 40 years ago. In 2017, breast-ogling scientists and ditzy blonde nymphomaniacs are harder to excuse, as are the casual jokes about spousal abuse and sexual assault.
Of course, unabashed bad taste has always been part of the Brooks brand. But this reboot was written only a decade ago, not during the pre-feminist dark ages. Simply rehashing a parade of smutty gags from the original screenplay feels like a lazy cop-out in an era of smart, self-aware, taboo-breaking stage hits like The Book of Mormon or Jerry Springer: The Opera.
Couched in jazzy light-orchestral arrangements, the songs are the saving grace here, and credit is due to Brooks for both music and lyrics. Standout numbers include the fast-paced “Please Don’t Touch Me” and the Lloyd Webber-ish romantic ballad “Deep Love,” both performed by the vocally versatile Pilkington, plus the rollicking “Roll in the Hay,” a three-way oompah romp featuring Fraser, Strallen and Noble. All are packed with snappy lines, machine-gun puns and salacious wordplay. Somehow this kind of humor works better in musical form, elevated by rhyme and meter, bouncing along like Noel Coward with an R-rated vocabulary.
Brooks peppers the dialogue with self-referential gags about low-budget horror movie cliches. This is a knowing wink at the audience, but not quite amusing enough to excuse an oddly cheap-looking production that relies heavily on old-school painted backdrops, underwhelming props and sketchy prosthetic effects. Ironic, willful amateurism is often indistinguishable from actual amateurism. There are still a few sparks of electric genius in Young Frankenstein, but not enough to fully reanimate this lumbering corpse of a show.
Venue: Garrick Theatre, London
Cast: Hadley Fraser, Ross Noble, Dianne Pilkington, Summer Strallen, Shuler Hensley, Lesley Joseph
Book: Mel Brooks and Thomas Meehan, based on the screenplay by Brooks and Gene Wilder
Music and lyrics: Mel Brooks
Director-choreographer: Susan Stroman
Set designer: Beowulf Boritt
Costume designer: William Ivey Long
Lighting designer: Ben Cracknell
Sound designer: Gareth Owen
Musical supervisor: Glen Kelly
Musical director: Andrew Hilton
Orchestrations: Doug Besterman
Presented by Michael Harrison, Fiery Angel, Kevin Salter
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