MAGNA — Young Frankenstein, officially known as The New Mel Brooks Musical Young Frankenstein, is a musical with a book by Mel Brooks and Thomas Meehan and music and lyrics by Mel Brooks. It is based on the 1974 comedy film of the same name written by Brooks and Gene Wilder and directed by Brooks. It is a parody of the horror film genre, particularly Universal horror classic Frankenstein and its 1939 sequel, Son of Frankenstein.
It follows the story of Dr. Frankenstein (pronounced Frunk-en-stein) as is his desire to distance himself from his insane relatives “the Frankensteins.” The good doctor is an accomplished professor and brain scientist at NYU. When he learns of his grandfather’s death, he is required to make a trip to Transylvania to claim his inheritance of the large estate. While there, he meets his various relatives and becomes acquainted with his grandfather’s old assistants and staff and eventually embraces his heritage, leading him to transform into the “mad scientist.”
This production from the Empress Theatre is the first Utah production of Young Frankenstein. Unfortunately, this premiere suffered from low energy and pacing problems. Several factors contributed to this problem. First the band, under the direction of Leigh Ann Copas was of very low quality. Though I appreciated the effort to have live music, the performance was reminiscent of a middle school band concert, with out of tune instruments, messy cutoffs, and at times a few beats off from the singers. This was distracting and really hurt many of the music numbers.
Next, I was surprised that the Empress decided to cast a newcomer, Jeff Erickson, in the title role as Dr. Frederick Frankenstein. Though he certainly has talent and could emerge into a strong leading man and gave a valiant effort, he lacked the experience to successfully carry such a large part. This was notable in many of his solos that had little enthusiasm or characterization. For example in “There is Nothing Like The Brain” his energy was very low and remained on one level for the entire number, with no shaping or any variety in his choices. At many times it felt that he was just singing notes as opposed to really communicating with his scene partners or telling a story, such as in “A Roll in the Hay,” which was void of the much needed physical comedy and chemistry with Inga to make this a successful number. Basically, Erickson needed to add much more depth and dimension to the role and make Dr. Frankenstein a multifacted person as opposed to a caricature. At the end of the performance I had a lot of unanswered questions about the character, and I did not understand what lead to his transformation from the intellectual scientist to the insane doctor. This made songs like “The Monster” and “Life, Life” seem inauthentic.
A few of the supporting actors did a decent job in their roles. Playing the sidekick to Dr. Frankenstein, Igor, Michael Thrall had some nice moments such as in “Together Again for the First Time.” During “Join the Family Business,” Thrall creatd an animal-like quality in Igor that gave the character a delightful creepiness (and great comedic timing). However, at times I felt that Thrall was playing the audience for laughs rather than focusing on his castmates, and he occasionally went a bit off pitch in his solo lines in many of the songs. Kylee Ogzewalla gave one of the stronger performances of the evening as Inga. She delivered her lines in a more believable manner and emphasized Inga’s relationship with other characters throughout the evening. Ogzewalla is also a talented dancer and moved well throughout the stage and acted with her full body, giving a more natural feel to the choreography. However, she played in a very subdued manner, and I wanted to see her raise the stakes considerably with her character. A lot of the humor in her character was lost due to her lack of commitment to a lot of the choices. Most notably “A Roll in the Hay,” which is one of the biggest songs for Inga, fell flat. If there was ever a time to let loose and really embrace the physical comedy and take some risks, this was it!
Betsy Christianson as Frau Blucher was the strongest actress of the evening. She devoted herself completely to the character, which I greatly appreciated. Her song, “He Vas My Boyfriend,” was especially funny, and Betsy Christianson helped energize a lot of the scenes she appeared in. She had a better understanding of the farcical style in the script and had great comedic timing. She was also the most consistent with her dialect. Erik Christianson as “the Monster” had some fun moments. He reacted well to many of the other actors as his character is basically mute and learning to talk again and all his acting is done through listening and responding to the other actors, which he was generally successful in doing. “Putting on the Ritz” and his scene with Elizabeth Benning were especially funny.
Kat Reynolds as Elizabeth Benning also did a decent job in her role and embraced the physicality as the “fiancée with money” very well through her posture, mannerisms, and line delivery. Reynolds carried herself well and had a nice singing voice. However, she suffered from the same problems as many of the actors with a lack of energy, most notably in “Please Don’t Touch Me” and “Surprise.”
The majority of the problems fell on the poor directing of the piece. The director, Clayton Cammack, did not seem to understand the style of Young Frankenstein‘s script, and failed to embrace a lot of the physical comedy and farcical elements in the writing. Cammack also seemed to shy away from a lot of the sexual humor and innuendos in the piece, which are critical to embrace in order to create a successful execution of the play. If Cammack or the Empress staff felt uncomfortable with the material, they should have picked a different production rather than gloss over these moments that were laden throughout the writing. Cammack also needed to help the cast function better as an ensemble by shaping the scenes, paying attention to the high points in the story and speed up the pacing considerably. Much of the humor was lost due to low energy, slow pacing, a lack of interest among cast members, a lack of physical comedy, and an unnatural line delivery by many of the actors.
The ensemble in the group were often out of tune with the harmonies and failed to blend, coupled with poor diction and low energy made the songs less exciting and hard to understand. The dance numbers (choreographed by Jake Anderson and Corina Johnson) were poorly choreographed, and rarely seemed to flow organically out of the scenes. Overall I was disappointed in the real disconnect between the movement and the storytelling. Finally, the tap numbers were especially rough as many of the cast members were not experienced tappers and struggled to keep on beat, which gave these numbers a messy and “popcorn like” sound instead of clear in sync beats and sounds that is critical for tap numbers to be successful and impressive.
The set and scenic design (Devin Johnson), props (Marie Nugter) and costumes, as well as the lighting (Curtis Baily and Clayton Cammack) were all adequate for the small space and did enhance the storytelling and help establish the time and place of Transylvania in the 1930’s.
Though this is a fun comedy and based on a popular movie that many audiences will remember, the Empress’s production fails to capture the comedy of the parody or embrace the style of the writing that Mel Brooks intended. It has the shape of the production, but the poor directing, low energy, and unpolished performances of many of the actors and musicians will unfortunately lead to a rather slow and dull evening.