When it opened on Broadway in 2007, “Young Frankenstein” had big shoes to fill — and I don’t mean the mammoth black platforms favored by the Monster. The 2007 Broadway disappointment, whose clunky official title is “The Mel Brooks Musical Young Frankenstein,” followed in the wake of Brooks’ 2001 megahit “The Producers,” which had at the time won the most Tony Awards ever (12). But the Borscht Belt genius’s second attempt to musicalize one of his movies, the 1974 “Young Frankenstein,” did not hit Broadway pay dirt — despite a plot that includes grave robbing. Not that the brassy, bawdy cannibalization of the well-loved film was an abject flop: It ran for over a year. But it never could escape the rap that it wasn’t “The Producers.”
The show still isn’t “The Producers,” which was lent meta-theatrical credence by being a show about putting on a show. But as the current revival at Bill Hanney’s North Shore Music Theatre (through Aug. 27) proves, neither is “Young Frankenstein” chopped liver (or any other ground-up body part).
Moreover, the NSMT staging does everything director/choreographer Kevin P. Hill can think of to evoke the iconic spoof of 1930s horror movies that starred Gene Wilder as the titular American scientist who visits Transylvania to close out his infamous grandfather’s estate but ends up staying to carry on the “family business” of monster-making. At the top of the production, the round playing space is wrapped in a scrim across which black and white credits shimmer, as in the film, as distributor 20th Century Fox’s theme music sneaks into the overture.
That said, this is a show that obviously feels it has to try harder and does, resulting in some over-pushing of the rehashed material. Still, from the big, sassy production numbers to the sinister goings on in the laboratory, this can’t be an easy show to cram into the round. And at NSMT all the bases are stylishly covered, from a pair of prancing steeds -- sort of a cross between “Equus” and rocking horses -- that whinny apprehensively every time the name of housekeeper Frau Blücher is mentioned to a jerky circular circuit for the hayride during which Dr. Frankenstein and his buxom, yodeling assistant, Inga, get to know each other. And this being a Mel Brooks show, full of merry smuttiness, I do mean biblically. (Maybe it’s best not to bring the kids to “Young Frankenstein” as neither the double entendre nor the musical paeans to “deep love” and large genitalia are likely to go over heads more than three feet from the ground.)
Of course, "Young Frankenstein's" target audience is the legion of fans of the film, who anticipate every transplanted gag with pleasure. When in the second act the blind hermit appears, dithering about his cottage, singing out his loneliness on “Please Send Me Someone,” the crowd erupts -- well before the sightless host starts his low-comic routine of spilling hot soup into the bewildered visiting Monster’s crotch.
As with “The Producers,” Brooks collaborated with Thomas Meehan on the “Young Frankenstein” libretto, but the songs are all his. And, musically speaking, they are derivative throwaways (with nods to klezmer, Kurt Weill, “Fiddler on the Roof” and overblown Andrew Lloyd Webber) redeemed by snappy lyrics -- almost all of them decipherable in the crisply sung NSMT production. Still, when the pull-out-all-the-stops number is the one stolen from Irving Berlin by way of the film, you can surmise that the rest of the score is pretty forgettable. “Puttin’ on the Ritz” is a great set piece, though, with the entire ensemble tapping smartly, yellow lights flashing and Brian Padgett’s looming Monster palpably proud of his indistinct but recognizable plugging of the title lyric.
As is usually the case at NSMT, though one might ask for more inspired material, what you get is quite professionally performed. The choreography is showy, and the ensemble pulls it off with verve. The principals, too, have high-caliber dancing and singing chops, from Tommy Labanaris’ zealous, scattershot if not quite mad Frederick Frankenstein to petite Sandy Rosenberg, who brings an anything but petite voice to Frau Blücher’s “He Vas My Boyfriend,” a gravelly paean to her stint as lusty Teutonic doormat to the deceased Dr. Victor Frankenstein. As sexpot scientific sidekick Inga, Brooke Lacy is all dutiful, provocative innocence, sweetly urging Frederick to “Listen to Your Heart.”
The film “Young Frankenstein” holds 13th place on the American Film Institute’s list of the 100 funniest American movies. The musical isn’t likely to show up in any pantheon. But it probably deserved better than its initial critical reception -- and will prove particularly fun for fans of the film looking for a cranked-up ride down some Transylvanian memory lane. In other words, if the mere phrase “Walk this way” makes you smile, you could do worse than to walk this way to the North Shore Music Theatre.
North Shore Music Theatre presents "Young Frankenstein" through Aug. 27.