Young Frankenstein, Getting Older by the Minute

It’s aliiiiiiive!

Well, sort of. In places. For a while.

But not really.

The stage-musical adaptation of Mel Brooks’s beloved 1974 horror film spoof Young Frankenstein will haunt the Kennedy Center Opera House through the holidays, and it’s an utterly explicable choice for this season of multi-generational out-of-town guests: bland and familiar even if you’ve never seen the movie, offering neither challenge nor much reward.

Sporting a brow even lower than that of the stitched-from-corpses creature at its center, and with about as much to say, the show — which began its 14-month Broadway run two years ago — represents Brooks’s attempt to repeat the success of The Producers. As with that 1968 film-cum-2001 Broadway smash, Brooks once again joined new music and lyrics to a story he brought to the screen more than three decades earlier.

Unlike The Producers, sadly, Young Frankenstein doesn’t flower from the change of venue. It isn’t a train wreck, but it never gets any better than merely well-intentioned and tolerable, like a clueless gift from a distant relative who doesn’t really know you, or that wearing wool gives you a rash, or that you haven’t bought a superhero comic since college. As the show lumbers into its third hour, you’ll likely start to feel like that distant relative’s flight home has been delayed indefinitely.

The title is as good as a plot synopsis. The brilliant scientist Frederick Frankenstein (a deft and dexterous Roger Bart, reprising the role he originated on Broadway) wants desperately to step outside the shadow of his scandalized surname, for it was his grandfather, Victor Frankenstein, who famously created a monster. When Frederick is called away from his teaching appointment in New York to inspect the Transylvanian castle he’s inherited, you know it won’t take long for him to resume the unholy researches his pariah-familias failed to perfect. Throw in a frigid fiancée, a downright tropical lab assistant, and the ghoulish servants Igor and Frah Blucher, and opportunities for madcap hijinks abound.

Boy, do they ever abound. Fearsome is their abundance. The comic principle being tested here is that every joke is funnier he second time, and funnier still the fifth time. Exactly one gag — that the utterance of Frau Blucher’s name makes the horses shriek in horror — retains its tickling potency through innumerable floggings. Otherwise, we know why the caged beast groans.

If repetition makes the jokes unforgettable, the same can’t be said for Brooks’s songs, which vanish from memory before their closing notes have dissolved. When Frederick and his monster (Shuler Hensley, also returning from the Broadway version) don tuxes and tails for a game rendition of Irving Berlin’s “Puttin’ on the Ritz,” you can’t not feel how the tune pops compared to those that have come before, and more troubling, those that remain.

The number is also director/choreographer Susan Stroman’s finest five minutes of the evening, featuring a great gimmick — resurrected from the Universal horror pictures Brooks was skewering to begin with — wherein the creature’s silhouette becomes untethered. When the creature’s shadow catches a case of happy feet and proceeds to bust a move without him, it’s as if the show itself wakes up and realizes it needn’t be so clumsy on account of the big guy with the moldy complexion and the bolts in his neck.

This review appears in today’s Washington Examiner.

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