'Young Frankenstein': Something's wrong in Transylvania

Linda Winer
Newsday (MCT)
YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN. Music and lyrics by Mel Brooks, book by Brooks and Thomas Meehan, directed and choreographed by Susan Stroman. Hilton Theatre, 213 W. 42nd St. Tickets $51.50-$121.50; 212-307-4100. Seen at Tuesday preview.

NEW YORK -- "Hump? What hump?" Anyone who grins reflexively at that line -- which means any of the zillions who cherish Mel Brooks' "Young Frankenstein" movie from 1974 -- can picture the precise moment when stooped, wild-eyed Igor uttered it.

But now imagine the words delivered in huge capital letters -- "HUMP? WHAT HUMP?" -- with the understatement of at least seven exclamation points, after which the actors playing Dr. Frankenstein and Igor pause, smirk at the audience and wait for their laugh.

"Young Frankenstein," which opened Thursday night with the same creative team that swept a record 12 musical Tony Awards for "The Producers" in 2001, is obviously the work of pros. The expert actors are never less than enjoyable as characters created, unforgettably, by the now-iconic movie cast. And Andrea Martin's Frau Blucher and Shuler Hensley's Monster are demonically adorable.

Is the show -- you know the question -- funny? Sometimes. But the sweat of competence drives too much of the vintage Brooks humor this time, and the staging by ace director-choreographer Susan Stroman seems more formula than invention. They clobber us with greatest-hits punchlines and repeat the jokes in each musical stanza until we can't always remember why we first loved them. At times, the mugging is so aggressive we feel bruised.

Don't assume this reaction to be part of the backlash that has poisoned some of the theater community since Brooks slapped a $480 price tag on a nightly chunk of what are called "premium" seats. Nor would I hold it against Brooks for not being humble enough after his "Producers" smash.

As Dr. Frederick Frankenstein (pronounced, of course, "Fronk-en-Steen"), Roger Bart makes one appreciate how much Gene Wilder did with how little in the film. Bart, with a pencil moustache and fluffy carrot hair, is a bit more like Snoopy than Carmen Ghia -- both roles he has owned on Broadway. Here he throws himself enthusiastically into all the busy vaudeville bits and makes a lot of big-old classic clown faces but, ultimately, seems more of a supporting player than the supporting players.

With her dare-me diva gusto and primal vocal belt, Megan Mullally gets to commune with the back balcony as the doctor's frigid fiance. She almost forces us to forgive the sluggish first act -- will we ever get to Transylvania? -- by enlivening an irrelevant production number before Frederick sails to his destiny. Better, she is wonderful in "Deep Love," the heavy-winking operetta about the Monster's endowments.

Sutton Foster finds just the right place to indulge her goofy-soubrette gifts (and her yodel) as Inga, the nubile assistant who offers Frederick the literal roll in the hay -- one of Stroman's most happily inventive scenes. Christopher Fitzgerald is very sweet as Igor (pronounced, of course, "Eye-gor"), though one's admiration of his talents may be affected by one's threshold for Stroman's more frantic vaudeville homage. Fred Applegate is delicious as the blind hermit, though doubling as the village inspector, even he can't find the joy in recycled Dr. Strangelove's dead-hand jokes.

We regret that Hensley, as the Monster, doesn't get to use his gorgeous baritone throughout the show, but he makes a splendidly human creature. Martin, with a major facial mole and the ability to move as if the air is thicker around her, sings "He Vas My Boyfriend" as Marlene Dietrich.

Stroman doesn't get to use her dancing chorus much and, when she does, the routines tend to stop the action and feel like filler. So much effort went into finding the look of old Universal horror movies that Robin Wagner's sets -- except for the strobe-electrified laboratory -- look too much like painted cardboard.

The best of Brooks' score is jaunty pastiche and parody -- Cole Porter, Gilbert and Sullivan and, for the still blissfully funny Monster mash, Irving Berlin's "Puttin On the Ritz." But unlike the lyrics from "The Producers," which had an onslaught of throw-away witticisms, many songs are dependent just on those famous jokes. William Ivey Long's costumes have great fun with 1934/Slavic-peasant looks and platform monster boots. Alas, something's wrong in Transylvania when the only thing in stitches is the creature's face.

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