alloween has come early this year as “The La Mirada Theatre For The Performing Arts” in La Mirada California, in conjunction with McCoy-Rigby Entertainment present the first show of their 2022-2023 Season: Mel Brook’s “Young Frankenstein”! Based on the legendary Humorist’s classic movie-satire, this musicalized stage adaptation marks the Southern California Premiere of the 2017 London Revised Libretto Version that’s about as hair-raisingly hilarious as it gets! Featuring a book by Brooks and Thomas Meehan, with music and lyrics by Brooks, this new production is Directed by Jeff Whiting, with Choreography by James Gray and Musical Direction by Benet Braun, (who also serves as Conductor.) A bona-fide laugh-fest, this new rendering puts the comedy and absurdity first and foremost, so anyone who thinks they know what’s in store should take heed: Prepare for an utterly new theatrical experience that vastly surpasses its predecessors (and those were some monster-sized shoes to fill to begin with!) What you’ll get is one guilty pleasure you’d ‘frankly’ be mad NOT to indulge in!
Released in 1974, the original comedy-horror feature, “Young Frankenstein” remains a first-class send-up of the 1931 Universal Pictures adaptation of Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” and its 1935 sequel, “The Bride of Frankenstein” (not to mention the whole Monster-Picture motion-picture genre the popularity of each spawned.) It was even shot in black and white to maintain the ‘feel’ of all those great old giants of the genre that basically put the studio on the map back in the day. A box-office smash and Academy Award nominee, this big-screen blockbuster is considered one of the “100 Funniest American Movies” by the “American Film Institute”. Now this electrifying revised musical stage adaptation is sure to leave So Cal audiences in stitches! We all know the basic story: a mad scientist (although in this case it might be more fitting to say a neurotic one,) named “Frederick Frankenstein”–grandson of the infamous inventor “Doctor Victor Frankenstein”, reluctantly inherits the family estate in Transylvania. Once there, with the help of a hunchbacked sidekick whose name is pronounced Eye-gore and a shapely, buxom lab assistant named “Inga”, the hapless Frederick finds himself following in his…well, ‘Monstrous’ forefather’s footsteps, creating a monster for the 20th century. Later, when the product of their efforts not-so-surprisingly escapes, it gives rise to loads of hysterical—and terrific–musical interludes as the doctor and his cohorts hunt for, find, and eventually put their creation on the vaudeville stage.
Director Whiting has hit a veritable motherlode of chuckles, chortles and guffaws with such rich material at his disposal–and he and his cast dexterously make the most of each one! On opening night, Producer Tom McCoy confided that this was probably the biggest show the company has ever undertaken—particularly when it comes to all the lighting and technical elements at play. That’s a humongous reputation this production has to live up to—and it does just that! Likewise, for this staging, the plot has been tightened and streamlined significantly, making things more intimate while keeping the focus on the doctor and his journey while leaving room to incorporate several sizable (if fewer) ‘spectacular’ segments (which, given that there a less of them, make those that do burst upon the scene stand-out all the more.) These are aided immensely by the fluid scene changes (–and boy, are there many of them–) which keep the action moving along at a good pace. Considering that much of the story is told through brief comedic vignettes, Whiting also garners the maximum amount of boisterous and brawny belly-laughs starting as “Fredrick” tries to bid his “Adorable Madcap Fiancé” “Elizabeth” farewell upon his departure to visit the ancestral manse in Transylvania. There’s also the episode that wreaks unintended suffering upon the Monster through a blind hermit’s clumsy attempts at hospitality. This re-envisioning also sticks a little closer to the screenplay with a new opening that has “Dr. Fronkensteen” (as he, when we meet him, prefers to be called) giving a lecture to a group of students about the brain throughout which they question and accuse him about his notorious family history. This segues immediately into the sharp-witted “There Is Nothing Like A Brain” (Yep, even the song titles are dynamite parodies!)
Whiting has also wisely dialed several of Brook’s more “burlesque” or “risqué” components down a notch or two, essentially taking much of the 1940’s era borscht-belt humor (which thrived on such ‘naughty’ or ‘blue’ suggestive buffoonery,) and brought them more up to date, thus in the process, he opens up the show’s appeal to a wider audience. His directorial enterprise has even interjected a few moments that pay winking homage to the previous Broadway outing, such as is seen with a massive 12-foot effigy of the traditional Frankenstein Monster (which initially appeared in a dazzling dream sequence that, for this re-imagining, has been dispensed with.) Given that it makes such a stunning visual though, it is to the Directors supreme credit that he still found a way to include it in some form, by way of a nifty ‘cameo appearance’ at the start of the second act.
What’s more, Choreographer James Gray builds on the original strides, slides and time-steps by Broadway’s Susan Stroman, while at the same time generating something totally unique and enthralling for this production. This time around, all the major dance numbers decidedly favor a more ‘Vaudevillian’ flavor, along with plenty of witty ‘character’ or ‘comedic’ dancing, illustrating how movement can also be a potent element in a show like this, and can be just as integral to its power and impact as your standard jokes and sight gags. After the ‘softer’ opening, “Please Don’t Touch Me” is the first substantial ‘full cast’ production number, as our hero the doctor, prepares to board a ship bound for Europe. Before he leaves though, he awkwardly attempts to give his glamourous fiancée, “Elizabeth” a goodbye kiss and quick embrace, only to have her rebuke him (seeing as she’s all dolled up and ready to hit the town now that he won’t be around.) This leads into a fast-paced little charmer as a group of like-minded travelers waiting on the docks emulate her eccentric, evasive maneuvers creating the “Please Don’t Touch Me”–the new dance craze, we’re informed, that’s sweeping Catholic Girl’s Schools all over the Midwest! (“Oh, what fun!” they squeal; “Let’s try it!”) Like several similar intermezzo’s we’re treated to, here’s a sterling example of fine facetious choreography at its cleverest, as the pairs mimic one another’s ‘trend-setting’ moves—all the while steadfastly keeping three feet apart! Then, halfway through Act One, for “He Vas My Boyfriend”, Gray devises a spot-on parody of “Mein Lieber Herr” (from the cinematic interpretation of “Cabaret”) having star Sally Struthers dance in ‘mock-provocative’ style with a chair spoofing Liza Minelli—the result is not just ‘comic gold’—it’s ‘comedy platinum’! Right before the act break, the ensemble come together again for “Welcome To Transylvania”, providing some outstanding group harmony which serves as a prelude to the more intricate “Transylvania Mania”—a comparably huge dance divertissement, in which they enthuse, “It’s a doozy that makes you woozy”.
All told, this rates as a resounding bright spot leading into intermission–that is until the newly revived creature brings things to a jolting halt by breaking down the castle door and running all the dancers off! However, the absolute roof-raiser—the zenith of Gray’s exceptional accomplishments in this entire endeavor is undoubtedly his choreographic masterwork involving “Puttin’ On The Ritz”—Irving Berlin’s time-honored anthem to sophistication and suavity. A hold over from the 1974 feature, for the stage, the number has been expanded on, going from just a quick one-off sight (and sound) gag, and into several dynamic dance phrases. It’s almost like several numbers in one, including a portion where Dr. Frankenstein’s creation performs a nifty ‘challenge dance’ opposite his own shadow (with the shadow dancing better than he does!) This, before it evolves into a whopping tap-extravaganza that comprises members of the dance chorus taking to the stage en masse to pick em’ up and put em’ down in a dashing demonstration of rhythm-in-unison (–on opening night those in attendance couldn’t have applauded louder or more wholeheartedly!)
Yet the real secret to this production lies in how the cast seems to be having so much dog-gone fun up there on stage, that we, the audience, can’t help but to have just as much fun ourselves (if not more!) Headlining the cast is Sally Struthers —long known for her work in such iconic series’ as “All In The Family” and “Gilmore Girls’, who steps into the character of ‘Frau Blücher” (cue the horse whinny.) It’s not an exaggeration to assert that she completely triumphs here–dominating practically every scene she’s a part of –and in all the very best, most side-splitting ways. For Theater-Lovers, it’s always exhilarating to see a familiar performer reveal a different side of themselves and their talents by appearing in roles that we might not readily expect, and for many of us, her depiction of the doctor’s stern housekeeper (with a hidden past) is like nothing we’ve ever seen her do before. Her solo descant “He Vas My Boyfriend” is far and away one of the shows’ more blazing highlights. Throw in how her over-the-top German accent is picture-perfect for all the many double entendres and throw-away-puns her character is tasked with and you’ve got a delightfully entertaining performance!
As “Inga”, the sprightly lab assistant (–“I have a master’s degree in Laboratory Science from Heidelberg Junior College…I can fulfill all your needs” she informs Fredrick upon their meeting–) Maggie Ek’s take is also refreshingly genuine—not the feather-brained-but-gorgeous floozy with no idea at all how she effects the male of the species (such as is a staple of much of Brook’s humor.) Instead, she’s toned her characterization down to be more relatable and less a stock stereotype. This in itself is invigorating enough, but when you add to it her sublime singing and dancing talents, it amounts to another truly winning performance the production can boast. Our first taste of her adept way with a bubbly tune occurs with “Roll In The Hay”, as Inga and Eye-gore convey the newly arrived doctor through a haunted forest to his castle by means of an old fashioned, horse-drawn hay wagon. Post Intermission, her lilting delivery of “Listen To Your Heart” is more smooth and straightforward rather than overly seductive or coquettish, and this too is a nice counterpoint, considering it contains some of the show’s most unusual verbiage (especially when taking into account it’s supposed to be a love song) : “Let’s be stupid together–not a thought in our heads,” she purrs; “two ‘bird-brains’ of a feather, who fly right into bed!” Sarah Wolter also stands out elegantly as ‘Elizabeth’. Her part may have been somewhat pared-down with this new script, but she nonetheless makes her mighty (–and mighty hilarious) presence felt when it counts. Herself a gifted vocal powerhouse, her leadership of both the song and dance sections of “Please Don’t Touch Me” makes the number a complete prize for her and everyone involved. Later in Act Two, “Elizabeth” suddenly arrives at the castle with her ‘entourage’ (“I never travel without them” she proclaims) “Sasha” (Make-up), “Masha” (Nails), “Basha” (Wardrobe), “Tasha” (Hair) and “Bob” (her astrologer,) as she announces her presence with the boisterous “Surprise (It’s Me)”; but it’s her solo “Deep Love” which is suitably melodramatic but magnificently imparted, further affirming just how powerful a singer Ms. Wolter is.
Meanwhile, Gary North adroitly pulls double-duty as both “Inspector Kemp” and “Harold, the Blind Hermit”. Both require pristine comic timing—chiefly in regard to all of the slapstick sight-gags both characters are tasked with.
Happily, North handily more than validates he’s up to the assignment. “The Inspector”, it turns out, is a survivor of a run-in with the previous/original Frankenstein Monster, which has left him with several creaky prosthetic limbs, while the hermit being blind, gives over to numerous well intentioned faux pas—not least of which being accidentally setting the Monster on fire while trying to light a cigar for him. Every bit as important to the production’s success is Trent Mills as “The Monster”. Although he really only has one musical segment—“Puttin’ On The Ritz”, it is the most renowned in the show, and Mills magnificently rises to the occasion (just dancing in those unwieldy oversized shoes should certify his dancing cred!) Perhaps even more exciting though, is how Mills has found the key to this character—he’s not some hulking brute Hellbent on murder and mayhem; he’s actually more of a bemused observer (and sometimes victim) of the world at large. This effectively endows his portrayal with (shall we say it?) a likable humanity–and even has us rooting for him. Whether suffering the clumsy (if well intentioned) blunderings of a blind hermit, losing a ‘dance off’ to a silhouette of himself, or even playing the gallant romancer of his creator’s intended, we’re given a ‘monster’ that’s more sympathetic and benign (–think one more akin to ‘Herman Munster’ or even “Milton, The Monster” of vintage Animated TV fame,) than the malevolent ghoul that has been fueling Hollywood nightmares for almost a century now. In the end, he even proves to be fairly eloquent once he begins to speak coherently (the question is even asked why he sounds like Noel Coward?!)
Altogether, it’s a safe bet you’ve never seen special effects quite like these—and definitely not on a local level! In fact, the special effects all through this one are nothing short of incredible—but markedly so during the monumental “Re-Animation” sequence when the doctor and his team scramble to bring their ‘creation” to life. More than just that though, is how they all rely on one another to help construct a slightly off-kilter reality of 1934 New York and Transylvania. Utilizing sets based on the original Scenic Designs by Robin Wagner, these are inter-reliant on the bold Lighting Designs by Jared A, Sayeg, which in turn go hand in glove with Eric S. Elias’ grand and glittery Pyrotechnics. Noteworthy too, are the period costumes by Erika Senase and Maggie Hoffman, while topping them off (literally) are the Wigs/Hair and Make-Up Designs by Kaitlin Yagen, which also incorporate a decent amount of prosthetics (for the Monster and the Inspector specifically) by Ralis Kahn. Each blend seamlessly to create another world where hunch-backed peasants can oddly change the location of their ‘hunch’, Monsters who have been resurrected from the dead can sing and dance, and lightning always mysteriously flashes whenever something strange, startling, or dramatic occurs.
Easily one of the funniest and antic-laden shows you’ve seen in a while, admittedly some of the humor might not be to everyone’s taste; but for those who have a hearty and healthy sense of humor, a frightfully enjoyable time at the theater awaits you! After previewing on Friday, September 16th and Saturday afternoon, September 17th, “Young Frankenstein” officially opened on Saturday evening, September 17th 2022, where it is slated to play through Sunday, October 9th, 2022, at “The La Mirada Theatre For The Performing Arts”, located at 14900 La Mirada Blvd., in La Mirada CA. Performance times are Thursdays at 7:30 PM Fridays at 8:00 PM; Saturdays at 2:00 PM & 8:00 PM, and Sundays at 1:30 PM & 6:30 PM; there will be an ‘open captioned’ performance on Saturday, October 1st at 2:00 PM, while post-curtain “Talk Backs’ with the cast and creative teams will be held on Thursday evening, September 22nd and Thursday evening, October 6th. Tickets may be obtained on-line by visiting: www.lamiradatheatre.com or via phone by calling: (562) 944-9801 or (714) 994-6310 (Special Student Discounts and Group Rates are available for this engagement.)
Production Stills By Jason Niedle, Courtesy Of Demand PR (www.demandpr.com) And McCoy-Rigby Entertainment; Special Thanks To David Elzer At Demand PR, Tom McCoy, Cathy Rigby, Jeff Whiting, James Gray, Benet Braun, Jarod Millsap & To The Cast & Crew Of “The La Mirada Theatre For The Performing Arts” & McCoy-Rigby Entertainment’s 2022 Southern California Premiere Production Of London’s Revised Version Of “Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein” For Making This Story Possible.