Simi Valley Cultural Arts Center proves that you don’t need a Broadway budget to give audiences their money’s worth, not with a show as crowd-pleasing as Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein (one of the few musicals you can feel safe in inviting even your most Broadway-musical-phobic friends to for a monstrous good time), and not with performers as multi-talented as this production’s seven leads.
Movie fans will recall Young Frankenstein as Brooks’ 1974 hit follow-up to Blazing Saddles (released the very same year). Young Frankenstein The Musical is Brooks’ 2007 follow-up to his mega-smash The Producers, and though the comic master’s sophomore musical ran less than 500 performances (compared to The Producers’ 2500+), it proves a tuneful, laugh-filled treat for Brooks fans and horror buffs alike with directors Fred Helsel and Stephen Weston at the helm.
Young Frankenstein tells the musical tale of renowned brain surgeon Dr. Frederick Frankenstein (Toby Tropper), 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 (Aliya Stuart), 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 (Austin Robert Miller), a nubile blonde lab assistant named Inga (Christine Tucker), and the sinister Frau Bucher (Elizabeth Stockton), 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 (Kevin Ellis).
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!”
In addition to its vocal treats, Young Frankenstein features bouncy production numbers aplenty, choreographed here by Becky Castells with a savvy awareness of her ensemble’s varied dance talents, including the show-opening “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.)
Ensemble members Madison Bales, Lisa Barrad, Ariel Jean Brooker, Sara Marie Calvey, Robert Dantona (Ziggy), Sharon Gibson, Greg Hardash, Sara Karpeles, Leah Millman, and Samantha Wulff give it their all, though the male-female imbalance makes one wonder if the chorus boys stayed away from auditions this time.
Fortunately, Simi Valley’s septet of leading players are professional-production pizzazzy despite quite a few of them being a decade—or two or three—younger than the roles would normally be cast. This matters least with the pitch-perfect Tropper, 22, and the downright spectacular Miller, 19, so sensationally do they fill shoes originally worn on the black-and-white silver screen by Gene Wilder and Marty Feldman that never in a million years would you guess (or complain about) their youth.
Tropper not only looks uncannily like a young Wilder, he nails every single Frederick Frankenstein moment, has great rapport with his costars, and shows off terrific comedic chops and song-and-dance skills honed at PCPA’s esteemed conservatory program. (It helps too that Tropper grew up loving Young Frankenstein The Movie.)
If every there were a star in the making, it’s still-teenaged Simi Valley favorite Miller (already a cable TV sitcom regular!), whose comic brilliance not only pays tribute to Feldman’s original but makes the bright-and-bug-eyed, ever faithful Igor, hysterically, scene-stealingly his own.
Following a pair of night-and-day different roles (Les Misérables’ nutty Madame Thenardier and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels’ sophisticated Muriel of Omaha), Stockton has great fun as the spooky Frau Blucher, her Marlene Dietrich-esque “He Vas My Boyfriend” proving quite “vonderful” indeed.
Stuart makes for a marvelously madcap Elizabeth “It’s Me” Benning, and sings the outrageously R-rated “Deep Love” to audience gasps of delight. Recent Texas-to-Southern California transplant Tucker is so deliciously saucy, sexy an Inga, it’s no wonder Frederick wants to “roll, roll in the hay” with her. Nicholas Ferguson is very funny too 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.
Last to appear (but hardly least on a “Best Of” list) is Simi Valley secret weapon Ellis, who makes the character known simply as The Monster monstrously funny, joining Miller, Stockton, Tropper, Tucker, and the rest of the cast in the production’s toe-tappingest show-stopper, Irving Berlin’s “Puttin’ On The Ritz.”
Musical director Gary Poirot conducts the production’s quite good orchestra in addition to coaching the cast’s harmonic vocals. Scenic designer Seth Kamenow gets high marks for doing his darnedest with a limited budget, thanks in large part to Chris Grote’s splendid projections, which prove a surprisingly effective substitute for pricey sets. Costume designer Randon Pool has come up with a colorful bevy of wild-and-crazy costumes. Grote’s thrills-and-chills sound design (one which also insures that we hear amped voices over the live orchestra), some fine lighting effects from Courtney Johnson, Brenda Miller’s many fun props, and Poirot’s multitude of wigs complete a design package most community theaters can only envy.
Young Frankenstein is produced by Helsel and David Ralphe. Brenda Goldstein is stage manager, Jan Carr assistant costumer, and Tori Cusack assistant choreographer. Richard Hernandez has provided the “monster prosthetic.”
Following in the spoof-o-licious footsteps of last year’s Monty Python’s Spamalot, Simi Valley Cultural Arts Center’s latest is the perfect musical for all those friends of yours who “don’t like musicals.” Even folks who’d rather eat glass than be forced to see Oklahoma!, Phantom Of The Opera, or A Chorus Line are guaranteed a Mel Brooks-style terrific time at Young Frankenstein.
Simi Valley Cultural Arts Center, 3050 Los Angeles Avenue, Simi Valley.
May 11, 2014
Photos: Jodie Morse Photography