Outside of Playhouse Square, no theater in town does the big musical as well as Beck Center, Artistic director Scott Spence and his associates understand (and clearly love) the form, and reliably deliver the goods.
They do the same this time around with Mel Brooks' Young Frankenstein. With a large cast that labors like Transylvanian castle slaves under Scott Spence's direction and Martin Cespedes' choreography, they work hard to pump fun into the proceedings. And there are plenty of entertaining riffs provided by the leads, even though one can see ways they could have gone farther with their characterizations.
But the material is weak and wan (ie. The Producers it ain't). Written by Brooks and Thomas Meehan, and based on the much-adored Brooks' movie of the same name, this nearly three-hour production sometimes feels like a multi-ton dreadnought slowly plowing its way to the finish line.
In Transylvania Heights, the citizenry is celebrating the death of what they assume is the last Dr. Frankenstein. But as they dance on his grave, the grandson of the mad scientist, Frederick Frankenstein, is teaching anatomy in New York City at the "Johns, Miriam and Anthony Hopkins School of Medicine."(Warning: this is emblematic of the fairly tepid wordplay to come.) Frederick is summoned to dispose of the family castle, and so heads off with his flirty but intimacy-denying fiancée Elizabeth (a strong-voiced Lindsey Mitchell), who insists on hands off her tits, among other parts.
Once in the spooky Romanian region, Fred meets the hunchback Igor, a bald and foot-dragging creature who is eager to get back to work on the Frankenstein family business of reanimating dead people. Then there's Inga (an always game Leslie Andrews), a buxom and yodeling lass who is as hot to trot as the horses pulling the hay wagon.
One of the funnier scenes in the show is "Roll in the Hay," featuring a barrelful of eye-rolling double entendres ("Does that mean I'm hired?" asks the bosom-heaving Inga, who wants to be Frederick's assistant. "Well, a large part of me is pointing in that direction," responds Frederick.). Played in counterpoint to Igor's whip cracking and the bobbing heads of two horses as they canter through video designer Ian Hinz's backwoods, the scene has a lilt that is often absent elsewhere.
And channeling pretty much every Abbott and Costello comedy-horror movie ever made, the interplay with the bookcase that rotates to reveal a mysterious hallway is a hoot.
As Frederick, Jamie Koeth sings well and has a bit of the Gene Wilder curly hair, but he lacks the third generation residue of crazy obsessiveness that should be surging through his DNA. He is well assisted by Alex Smith as Igor, who does a nice job throwing away some of the lame Brooksian gags and getting more mileage out of them.
In the coveted role of the castle's threatening, violin-playing Frau Bucher (the horses neigh in fear whenever her name is mentioned), the excellent Amiee Collier struts and snarls with style. Still, it seems Collier and Spence could have taken even more chances with the good Frau.
John Busser as the partly de-limbed Inspector Kemp adds some smiles and Christopher Aldrich fashions a rather lovable Monster, especially when he does a flatfooted soft shoe in "Puttin' on the Ritz."
Unfortunately, the show concept by Brooks tries to capture the black & white ambiance of his movie, resulting in a lot of sets by Cameron Caley Michalak that necessarily are various shades of gray. Lacking eye candy, and with a Brooks' score that lacks any real zip (except for the one tune by Irving Berlin), the company is forced to generate all the excitement by themselves.
The fact that they succeed as often as they do is a tribute to their industriousness. And hats off to musical director Larry Goodpaster and the 19-person orchestra, that fills the theater with glorious music. This feels good to the ears, especially when many other area musicals outside of PlayhouseSquare limp along with a piano and a kazoo.
Through August 17 at the Beck Center, 17801 Detroit Ave., Lakewood, 216-521-2540.
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