In Reprising 'Young Frankenstein,' There's Too Much Old Hat

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"Young Frankenstein," a theatrical take on the classic film spoof, began its week-and-half-long run at the Boston Opera House on Tuesday. WBUR's critic-at-large, Ed Siegel, reviews.

Shuler Hensley, left, and Roger Bart appear in an earlier version of "Young Frankenstein." (Courtesy Paul Kolnik)
Shuler Hensley, left, and Roger Bart appear in an earlier version of "Young Frankenstein." (Courtesy Paul Kolnik)

Those who’ve seen the original movie, “Young Frankenstein,” can act out much of the dialogue in their sleep — “My name is Fronkensteen.” “Walk this way.” “Roll, roll, roll in the hay.”

Mel Brooks, who wrote the film with its star, Gene Wilder, can obviously recite them in his sleep, too, because the theatrical version shows all the signs of creative sleepwalking on his part.

How could you go so wrong, Mel, after the ecstatic new theatrical life you gave “The Producers” with all those gloriously irreverent new ideas like geriatric women dancing with their walkers or dancing girls coming out of filing cabinets?

The same formula is there for “Young Frankenstein” — and maybe that’s the problem. It feels like formula: Vaudeville humor, wink-wink references to the movie, nudge-nudge sight gags, high-energy toe-tappers. But what was jaw-dropping and outrageous the first time around is yawn-inducingly old hat as an encore.

Brooks is partly a victim of his own success. With the film version of "Young Frankenstein," he came up with one of the most perfect comedic casts in movie history. Neither he nor Susan Stroman, both the director and choreographer of the play, seems to know whether to have the characters imitate the originals or strike out on their own. Even though the company is talented enough, the result tends to be bland, as in Anne Horak’s invitation — a la Teri Garr — to roll in the hay.

Ideas tend to get undercooked or overcooked and few of the actors, including Roger Bart as Dr. Fronkensteen, are really allowed to shine. There are a few exceptions — Beth Curry as the original love interest, Elizabeth; Rye Mullis as the Monster; and Brad Oscar as the Blind Hermit hoping for a friend with Jolson-like gusto.

Most of the good stuff doesn’t happen until the second act, so don’t despair at intermission. In fact, most of the audience on opening night seemed to be much more into the silliness of the first act than I was.

But when Mel Brooks is really on his game, you don’t have to think about how good the material is: The gales of laughter say it all. Here, “Young Frankenstein’’ is only good for a few chuckles.

Young Frankenstein” continues at the Boston Opera House through May 2.

This program aired on April 23, 2010.

Headshot of Ed Siegel

Ed Siegel Critic-At-Large
Ed Siegel is critic-at-large for WBUR.



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