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By Martin F. Kohn
Mel Brooks created a monster. It’s called “The Producers,” and “Young Frankenstein,” Brooks’ subsequent Broadway musical based on one of his movies, will forever be in its shadow.
“The Producers,” directed by Susan Stroman, ran for six years, gobbling up every critic’s superlative, Tony Award and dollar of Broadway playgoers’ disposable income and gave rise to the infamous $400 theater ticket.
“Young Frankenstein,” also directed by Stroman, ran for 14 months, got mixed reviews, received no major awards and inspired the backlash against the $400 theater ticket.
Speaking of numbers, the best one in “Young Frankenstein” is “Puttin’ on the Ritz,” music and lyrics by Irving Berlin.
Still, if not as inspired as “The Producers,” “Young Frankenstein” is highly entertaining, and the touring version now at the Detroit Opera House has something no tour of “The Producers” ever had: the original Broadway stars. Roger Bart (Dr. Frederick Frankenstein) and Shuler Hensley (The Monster) are playing the roles they originated and they are wonderful.
Local theatergoers may recall Bart as a terrific Snoopy chasing the equally terrific Kristin Chenoweth in the 1998 Broadway-bound “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown” at the Fisher Theatre.
This time around Bart is chasing, at first reluctantly, the dream of bringing the dead to life — but for the betterment of humankind, unlike the monstrous creation of Frederick Frankenstein’s grandfather, Victor, recently deceased.
Frederick is a brilliant medical school professor, but as he delivers a rapid-fire patter song, “The Brain,” to his eager students, it’s evident that Frederick has the soul of a frustrated vaudevillian.
Leaving his virginal fiancee, Elizabeth (Beth Curry), behind he heads off to Transylvania to settle his grandfather’s estate.
There he meets the hunchbacked Igor (Cory English), grandson of Victor’s assistant Igor, and in the song “Together Again” it appears that in Igor, too, there beats the heart of a song-and-dance man.
Frederick finds a helpful assistant in the voluptuous Inga (Anne Horak), who indicates her willingness to help in a song called “Roll in the Hay.” And at Castle Frankenstein, with its impressive door knockers, the fourth member of the team appears, grim Frau Blucher (Joanna Glushak) the merest mention of whose name frightens the horses.
Frau Blucher turns out to have had a thing with the late Victor, and Glushak gets one of Brooks’ best songs in the show, “He Vas My Boyfriend,” a spoof of a masochistic torch song (“If I mentioned wedlock/ He’d put me in a headlock”).
This is not the only number to represent Brooks’ appreciation of show business history. “Join the Family Business,” in which Frederick’s ancestors appear in a dream, is a fine and lively homage to “Tevye’s Dream” from “Fiddler on the Roof,” down to the giant puppet that fills the stage from top to bottom.
Well, we all know what happens, which brings us to Hensley (very large and very green) and Bart in “Puttin’ on the Ritz,” the culmination of Frederick’s unspoken desire to be in show biz. Bart’s understated and debonair performance perfectly complements Hensley’s barely articulate, barely controlled crying out of the few words the monster has managed to learn.
Here Stroman, a choreographer before she turned to directing, is at her best, concocting a splendid tap number and making great use of strobe lights for an effect that won’t be revealed here.
If only the rest of “Young Frankenstein” were that good.
Broadway in Detroit, Detroit Opera House, 1526 Broadway St., Detroit. Tuesday-Sunday through March 14. $25-$85. 313-872-1000. http://www.broadwayindetroit.com