New York has met its match as Moonlight Stage Productions lives up to its catchphrase “Broadway’s Best Under The Stars”—and then some—with an all-around sensational production of Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein that gives SoCal audiences an open-air Broadway experience without the cramped seating, astronomical ticket prices, and hoity-toity attitude you might get on The Great White Way.
As any Broadway buff can tell you, Young Frankenstein is Brooks’ 2007 follow-up to The Producers (winner of a record-breaking twelve Tony awards, a 2500+ performance mega-smash that was, believe it or not, the very first Broadway musical for which Brooks wrote book, music, and lyrics), and though the comic master’s sophomore musical ran less than 500 performances, it proves a tuneful, laugh-filled treat for Brooks fans and horror buffs alike, particularly with Matthew J. Vargo recreating Susan Stroman’s Tony-winning original direction and choreography to razor-sharp perfection.
Young Frankenstein tells the musical tale of renowned brain surgeon Dr. Frederick Frankenstein (Larry Raben), who, upon receiving news that he has inherited his mad scientist grandfather’s estate, leaves his prestigious position as Dean Of Anatomy at New York’s Johns, Miriam and Anthony Hopkins School of Medicine to travel to mysterious Eastern Europe.
Though sad to leave his “Please Don’t Touch Me” fiancée Elizabeth (Jessica Bernard), Dr. “Fronkensteen” (that’s how he pronounces it) heads off to Transylvania Heights where he is greeted by a hunchback named Igor pronounced Eye-gore (Jamie Torcellini), a nubile blonde lab assistant named Inga (Noelle Marion), and the sinister Frau Bucher (Tracy Lore), whose very name inspires fear in the hearts of men and horses, but particularly of horses.
Despite his initial reservations, Frederick soon makes a life-changing decision—to follow in his grandfather’s footsteps and reanimate the dead, the result of which is the return to life of a seven-foot, green-faced creature known only as The Monster (Randall Hickman).
Young Frankenstein The Musical recreates Young Frankenstein The Movie’s most memorable sequences, including the classic “Put… the candle… back!” scene, The Monster’s ill-fated encounter with a blind hermit named Harold (itself inspired by the original 1931 Boris Karloff flick), and the top-hat-and-tails musical extravaganza “Puttin’ On The Ritz.”
The latter tune, by Irving Berlin, is the only one Brooks didn’t write for Young Frankenstein. As for the eighteen or so he did write, they are a tuneful, catchy, lyrically clever bunch, no small feat for any Broadway songwriter let alone one who started writing songs for Broadway in his early seventies. (Brooks was a youthful 81 when Young Frankenstein opened on Broadway.)
This being Mel Brooks, audiences can expect plenty of double entendres (or simply downright dirty jokes)—and thank the gods of the risqué for that. After all, when was the last Broadway show in which you heard a chorus of female voices harmonizing to “Don’t dare to touch our tits. Don’t touch our tits. Don’t touch our tits. Don’t touch our tits, tits, tits, tits, tits, tits, tits, tits, tits!” Or heard lines like: “Victor won the three-legged race … all by himself.” Or heard a woman declaring in song, “Now I will keep love deeper and deeper and deeper and deeper and deeper and deeper and deeper forever inside! Forever inside!”
Like The Producers, Brooks’ second attempt at Broadway musical smashdom benefits enormously from Stroman’s creative vision, with bouncy production numbers aplenty, including the show opener “The Happiest Town” (which has the residents of Transylvania Heights celebrating Grandpa Frankenstein’s demise), “Please Don’t Touch Me” (featuring some very funny ballroom dancing sans body contact), “Join The Family Business” (with Frederick cavorting with his dead ancestors), and the wild and wacky “Transylvania Mania.” (And that’s just Act One.)
Mel Brooks aficionados will relish Raben’s deliciously nutty performance, one which recalls Gene Wilder’s hilarious original with the added treat of Raben’s terrific vocals and fancy footwork, begging the question, Is there a more talented triple-threat in the U.S.A. than Larry Raben?
The same can be said for Raben’s costars, Southern California favorites giving career-best performances—or thereabouts.
Fellow top-biller Hickman’s Monster doesn’t appear till Act Two, but when he does, Young Frankenstein takes off to even greater heights of hilarity, and never more so than when Hickman joins Raben, Marion, Torcellini, Lore, and the rest of the cast in the toe-tapping show-stopper that is Irving Berlin’s “Puttin’ On The Ritz.”
Bernard shatters her G-rated girl-next-door image in a career-redefining star turn as madcap “me” girl Elizabeth, her rendition of “Deep Love” as deeply satisfying an image changer as I’ve seen.
Marion simply couldn’t be more adorably saucy as luscious, leggy—albeit slightly dumb blonde Inga, while Doug Davis shines in a pair of roles, as Inspector Kemp (who inspires a number of outrageous “arm and a leg” gags) and even more so as the blind Hermit, whose prayer to “Please Send Me Someone” gets answered in hilariously unexpected ways.
Supporting the seven leads are fifteen gifted SoCal triple-threats, giving their Broadway counterparts a run for their money in tracks that turn them into gravediggers, villagers, medical students, passengers, mad scientists and other assorted cameos.
Johnny Fletcher’s ghost of Dr. Victor von Frankenstein, who urges Frederick to “Join The Family Business,” and Eric Hellmers’ side-splitting turn as village idiot Ziggy are ensemble standouts, though there’s not a weak link among Will Anderson (Telegraph Boy, Bob, Ritz Specialty), Emily Dauwalder, Ashlee Espinosa (Basha), assistant to the choreographer Brenna Fleeman-Day, Fletcher (also Medical Student, Transylvania Quartet), Danny Hansen, Kyle Hawk (Equine), Hellmers (also Shoeshine Man), Kristen Lamoureux (Masha), Matthew Malecki (Herald, Transylvania Quartet), Travis Morse (Medical Student, Equine, Transylvania Quartet, Sasha, The Count), Kristien Lee Olson, Katie Palmer, Jane Papageorge (Tasha), and Timothy Stokel (Medical Student, Transylvania Quartet).
Musical directors Kenneth Gammie and Randi Rudolph get top marks for the cast’s ever-so-harmonic vocals, with Gammie conducting the Broadway-ready thirteen-piece Young Frankenstein pit orchestra. In fact, a Moonlight Stages production has never sounded more thrilling than this one, thanks also to Christopher Luessmann’s chills-and-laughter-inducing sound design and an expert use of Moonlight’s state-of-the-art sound system as never before.
Moonlight’s Young Frankenstein benefits enormously from Robin Wagner’s creepy, spooky, Tony-nominated original Broadway scenic design and six-time Tony-winning original designer William Ivey Long’s sensationally imaginative, colorful bevy of gorgeous and/or wild-and-crazy costumes.
Lighting by SoCal design star Jean-Yves Tessier completes a phenomenal design package. Costumes have been coordinated and executed by Roslyn Lehman, Renetta Lloyd, and Carlotta Malone. Suzanne Asebroek is properties coordinator, Peter Herman wig designer, and Kathleen Kenna make-up designer/wig specialist, and Gabriel Nunez make-up assistant. Stanley D. Cohen is stage manager and Sharon Strich assistant stage manager.
Freshman Moonlight Stages artistic director Steven Glaudini gets a big thumbs up from this reviewer for giving audiences Young Frankenstein in all its unexpurgated PG-13 splendor. (“You can stick me, you can lick me, you can pinch me till I’m blue. You can savage me and ravage me. I care not what you do if the lovely filthy things you do are only in your mind.”)
So leave the kiddies at home (they just had their Wizard Of Oz fix after all) and come laugh until you’re as blue in the face as Mel Brooks’ humor. Fronk-ly speaking, Young Frank-enstein makes for riotous fun under the moonlit Vista skies.
Moonlight Amphitheatre, 1200 Vale Terrace Drive, Vista.
September 1, 2013
Photos: Ken Jacques Photography