MSMT's "Young Frankenstein": A Hit Below the (Borscht) Belt

The Cast of "Young Frankenstein"
(photo: Roger S. Duncan)
It's a calm summer night as Maine State Music Theatre presents the fang-in-cheek musical “Young Frankenstein”, with Music and Lyrics by Mel Brooks and Book by Brooks and Thomas Meehan, based on the cherished 1974 film comedy. Things will soon be a lot less calm as the play progresses. Having opened on Broadway in 2007 to a mixed reception (perhaps due in part to the unavoidable comparisons to Brooks' phenomenal first musical “The Producers”, as well as bad press because of this show's producers' creation of the monstrously greedy concept of Premium Seating, and their haughty refusal to share box office figures) it had a disappointing run of only about 500 performances, although winning the Outer Critics Circle Award as Best Musical, as well as being nominated for three Tony Awards. This parody of 1930's horror films with its under-appreciated score deserved better, and if any company could reanimate the work, surely MSMT could. And has.

As the musical begins, we see the citizens of 1934 Transylvania Heights, including the creepy Inspector Kemp (he of the various wooden appendages, played here by David Girolmo), the even creepier Igor (for whom every day is hump day, wonderfully played by Robert Creighton) and Ziggy the village idiot (Steve Gagliastro), gleefully burying the remains of Dr. Victor von Frankenstein, the mad scientist (aren't they all?) who infamously created his Monster from miscellaneous body parts. They all express relief that Dr. Frankenstein's grandson Frederick (Jeremiah James, with great presence and superb voice), dean of Anthony Hopkins School of Medicine in America, who has inherited his father's castle, lives too far away to threaten them. But contrary to their beliefs, we soon see the very same Frederick taking leave of his fiancée Elizabeth (the wacky Jessica Lee Goldyn) to check out the castle in person. Encouraged by Igor and the housekeeper Frau Blucher (Charis Leos in her best MSMT role out of four this season), the very mention of whose name produces equine terror, Frederick creates his own version of The Monster (a marvelous Timothy Hughes), and horror, as they say, ensues.
Meanwhile Elizabeth herself arrives in untimely fashion to find Frederick and a local farmgirl Inga (the wondrous Missy Dowse) having a proverbial roll in the hay, while Frau Blucher (cue those horses again) frees the Monster who runs, as they also say, amok. After a brief spell in the home of a blind hermit, the Monster encounters Frederick who convinces him he has a future on the stage. Couples are uncoupled and recoupled so that the Monster ends up with Elizabeth, Frederick ends up with Inga, and Frau Blucher ends up with the hermit. When asked by Inga what Frederick got in exchange for the Monster, he replies that he gained his renowned schwanstuker (in context, no translation required). Others in the large cast include Paul Aguirre (as Victor in a flashback) and the multi-talented Ensemble: Chrissy Albanese, Michaela K. Boissonneault, Sara Bond, Alec Cohen, James Spencer Dean, Kenneth Quinney Francoeur, Michael Graceffa, Benjamin Henley, Jordan Lipes, Connor McRory, Leah Nicoll, Reagan Danel Ogle, Buddy Reeder (Dance Captain), DeAngelo Renard, Stefanie Sable, Liz Schmitz, and Lauren Brooke Tatum.

The musical numbers, in addition to one directly from the film (“Puttin' on the Ritz” by Irving Berlin) include “The Happiest Town in Town”, “The Brain”, “Please Don't Touch Me”, “Together Again (for the First Time)”, “Roll in the Hay”, “He Vas My Boyfriend”, “Welcome to Transylvania”, “Transylvania Mania”, “Man about Town”, and “Deep Love”. They echo memorable lines from the film that cried out for musicalization, and Brooks responds with homages to various composers and lyricists, such as Cole Porter, Romberg, Herbert, Friml, Weill and Brecht, as well as lovingly recalled performers including Danny Kaye, Shirley Temple, Fred and Ginger, and Al Jolson. (The liner notes for the original cast album, by the New York Sun's Will Friedwald, are especially helpful in this regard). It's a cleverly eclectic and electric score executed superbly by the cast and orchestra, with all of Brooks' often inspired (and sometimes perspired) wit, sometimes subversively subtle, sometimes rude and crude, intact while laying on an extra level of triple entendres; this is Mel Brooks, after all, and qualifies as a guilty pleasure. Subtlety has never been his strong point; sophomoric humor is his forte. Some of it is quite winning, some plain losers, such as the hermit scene with his song “Please Send Me Someone” which, as it was in the movie, is discomforting and cruel, and could easily be omitted, as could the superfluous “Listen to Your Heart” by Inga. On the whole, however, if a bit overstuffed, the music scores well.

When all the creative stars come together as in the brilliant realization of “Roll in the Hay”, with its (you should excuse the expression) broad humor, or the lengthy but extraordinarily tap routine that accompanies “Puttin' on the Ritz”, this production of the show comes truly alive. The impossibly complex multiple sets of the Scenic Design by Kyle Melton are amazing, as are the Costume and Wig Design by Kurt Alger, the atmospheric Lighting Design by Jeffrey S. Koger, the eerily effective Sound Design by Brett Rothstein, the exceedingly clever and witty Projection Design by Dan Efros, and the very capable Music Direction by Samuel Thorne Bagala. The major star of this production, however, is Director/Choreographer Marc Robin; rarely has any show in recent memory been as energetic, coordinated and almost pluperfect as this one.

As for your enjoyment of the work, it will depend on your tolerance for the strange-bedfellow union of low humor and high art, but this may well be the best production the company has ever done. Leave your inhibitions at the door; may the borscht ever flow.

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