Halfway into the second act of Mel BrooksÕ musicalization of his 1974 film, Young Frankenstein, comes one of those sublime moments when song, dance and story coalesce to transform a show-biz snack into a banquet.
Frederick Frankenstein Ñ thatÕs FRAHN-ken-steen Ñ is determined to demonstrate to the populus of Transylvania that his monster is a harmless bon vivante. Dressed in matching top hat and tails, Frederick warbles ÒPuttinÕ on the RitzÓ while his creature offers periodic syncopated grunts. Amusing, yes, but so far a mere retread from the Silver Screen edition.ÊÊÊÊÊÊÊÊÊÊÊ
Then director-choreographer Susan Stroman finally displays her much-herald knack for musical-theater inspiration. A giant scrim drops, and the monster proceeds to hoof with a Salvador Dali-like silhouette of himself. The delirious joke is that the two figures donÕt always match. Then an army of dancing shadows fills the stage, and the audience suddenly finds itself in a funhouse mlange of Merrie Melodies cartoon images, combined with a direct reference to Fred AstaireÕs legendary Bojangles of Harlem number in Swing Time.
Unfortunately, thatÕs all, folks. The best that can be said for the rest of the show is that it elicits memories of a post-1960 Bob Hope cavorting with Phyllis Diller and well-known bimbos like Joey Heatherton and Anita Ekberg. Like late-career Hope, itÕs the desperate floundering of a comic genius who has run out of gas.
First, thereÕs the score, which contains two memorable tunes, both, alas, by long-deceased songwriters, Irving Berlin (ÒPuttinÕ on the RitzÓ) and Victor Herbert (ÒAh, Sweet Mystery of LifeÓ). The rest of BrooksÕ score is a pallid pastiche of pastiches, each song a single leering joke.
In BrooksÕ former screen-to-stage success, The Producers, the musical elements gave a sweet edge to bitingly clever satire. As inspired as the film Young Frankenstein was, it was basically an extended take on old movie forms, filmed in gorgeous black-and-white. So the musical version only adds songs that overextend familiar gags. Ê
Director Mike Nichols was able to embroider the 1975 film Monty Python and the Holy Grail into the similarly frolicsome stage musical Spamalot with more pungent wit and surefire theatricality. Young Frankenstein is more a mummification than an enhancement.
The touring cast also has only two bright spots with actual beating hearts. Perhaps because they created the roles on Broadway, Roger Bart (Frederick) and Shuler Hensley (Monster) both generate genuine antic sparks. The rest of the cast seems to be imitating imitations.
Aside from that glorious ÒPuttinÕ on the Ritz,Ó StromanÕs staging supplies little more than an arthritic wheez to move the production along. Oh, please, Mr. Brooks, donÕt schtup with Blazing Saddles.