Rockville Musical Theatre has created a monster… hit. Young Frankenstein is a scream.
In reanimating the show, of course, they are starting with prime parts. The original 1918 story by Mary Shelley has been called the first science fiction novel and has sparked imaginations and imitations for 200 years. The 1974 movie, written by Mel Brooks and Gene Wilder, was Brooks’ favorite of his works, and his highest-grossing movie. Beloved lines (“Put… the candle… back,” “What hump?” “Walk this way…,” which even inspired a song by Aerosmith) are still quoted in casual conversation half a century later. It is one of those cultural touchstones where even the title gets entrance applause.
The original Broadway production was not as popular as Brooks’ previous Great White Way foray, The Producers, which won a record-breaking 12 Tony Awards. Young Frankenstein was “merely” nominated for three Tonys and won the Outer Critics Circle award for Best Musical. Young Frankenstein does not have the satirical edge that making fun of Hitler gave to The Producers, but it has Mel Brooks’ deep love of classic 1930s horror films and Broadway musicals. The show is both a parody and a homage, and the musical numbers come across as a pastiche of Broadway styles rather than memorable show tunes in their own right. But this perfectly supports their comic purpose.
RMT’s resurrection follows in the footsteps of its forbears in having a team of director/choreographers in charge. Just as Susan Stroman helmed the Broadway incarnation, Colleen Prior and Michael Page have produced a masterly monster mashup of comedy and dancing. Especially effective is the Act 2 showstopper, “Puttin’ on the Ritz,” where the funny duet between creator and monster (which Brooks, unbelievably, almost cut from the film) is turned into a full-cast tap-dancing extravaganza, complete with white ties and tails, canes, and a clever and sparkling cameo by Kathie Rodgers as the “Shadow Tapper.”
The production team does good work with a very technically demanding show. Especially effective is Matt McNevin’s sound and projection design, using a screen that is rolled forward and backward on the stage to establish the essential black-and-white film ambiance, provide backgrounds and special effects, including a portrait coming to life, and land more than a few jokes, such as mistaken title cards and a funny take on the classic “progress on a map” trope. Particularly clever is the looping animated background behind the haycart drawn by horses (“`Blucher!’ Neeeiiiiiiighh!!!!”) that brings Frankenstein to the castle. It would be nice if the white flashes between the animation loops could be eliminated, but it doesn’t take much effort to imagine them as lightning. Equally effective is the scrolling background that indicates the Doctor’s revivifying apparatus with the monster rising up to the top of the tower. Also, this screen is cleverly used several times to cast silhouettes, either alone or in front of other projections. In addition, in the sound design, the cast’s voices are not overwhelmed by the orchestra, which is not always the case in the F. Scott Fitzgerald Theatre. A few small glitches with mics will no doubt be resolved.
Sam Mera-Candedo’s set design of revolving stone blocks works mightily to convey all the different locations the plot demands, and the iconic revolving bookcase is particularly well done. But despite the backstage crew and cast working at breakneck speed, many of the set changes are uncomfortably long. One can hope this will improve as the run continues, but the complexity of the set and the size of the stage clearly make this difficult. At one point the directors put an actor singing a solo downstage in a spotlight while the set change is happening. It is a shame this can’t happen more often.
Christina Giles’ lighting design does the job, although one dance number early on seemed to happen in the dark, and some spotlights and actors didn’t meet up where they should. This no doubt will improve as well.
Mary Goodwin’s costumes are well done, from the Monster’s elevator shoes to Frankenstein’s fiancée’s smoldering red ensembles to Igor’s wandering hump, and especially the glamorous tap ensemble in “Puttin’ on the Ritz.” Maureen Dawson deserves kudos for her hair and makeup design, particularly the Monster’s green hue (although if there’s any way to keep it from melting off through all the actor’s exertions — a tall order — it would be even better), and Elizabeth’s flaming-red “Bride of Frankenstein” wig.
Music Director Michelle Bruno conducts the full, lush, 15-piece orchestra with aplomb, making it sound, if possible, even larger — without overwhelming the singers. The only flaw is the lack of variety in the vamps the orchestra plays during scene changes because they go on so long. If that can’t be fixed, perhaps Bruno could substitute bits of songs instead? The chorus is crisp and well-coordinated, and the harmonies in the Village Quartet (octet?) in “Welcome to Transylvania” are nice and tight. Bruno also makes fine use of the principals’ excellent voices.
And as for those principals, they are a true treat.
Brian Lyons-Burke (Inspector Kemp/The Hermit) is unrecognizable — until he opens his mouth. Then the comic chops and powerful voice that have delighted audiences in the DC Metro area for almost a decade shine through.
Megan Evans, as Frederick’s smoking-hot — and untouchable! — fiancée Elizabeth, blows the roof off the auditorium several times in numbers like “Surprise” and “Deep Love.”
As The Monster, Kirk Patton Jr. handles everything the show throws at him — from slapstick to erudition to pathos to massive tap numbers — with aplomb and appeal, all while clomping around in 6-inch platform boots.
Leigh Wirth Dencker is the perfect Frau Blucher (Neeeiiiiighhhh!!). Playing the part as a cross between a classic creepy haunted housekeeper and Marlene Dietrich, she proves a triple threat with dance talent, a spectacular voice, and killer comic timing. Her “He Vas My Boyfriend” is a triumph.
Faith Wang’s Inga seems delicate — until her voice starts to soar in “Roll in the Hay,” or seduce in “Listen to Your Heart.” Her full-throated yodeling while also indicating the jiggling of the haycart is an impressive feat.
Matt Setzer, a newcomer to RMT, shines as Frederick Frankenstein. While not copying Gene Wilder’s mannerisms or delivery exactly, he captures much of the charm of the original. He fills all his numbers with a manic but attractive leading-man energy.
But it is Sam Weich who proves the real show-stealer as the body-snatcher Igor. (“It’s pronounced EYE-gor.”) A well-known presence music-directing and conducting many shows in the area, Weich has managed to escape the pit to perform this bucket-list role to perfection. His movements, comedy, energy, singing, and dancing are a revelation. Although invaluable to the theater community as an MD, he must be allowed space to delight us onstage in future shows as well.
All-in-all, in pedigree, production, and performance, Young Frankenstein, is a smashing revival of an underappreciated show based on a beloved film. Opening night, an audience member called this the best RMT show she had ever seen — and given the company’s usual high standard, that is praise indeed. There is no better way to spend a few hours this spooky season than reveling in Young Frankenstein. No trick… go ahead. Treat yourself.
Running Time: Approximately two and a half hours with one 15-minute intermission.
Young Frankenstein plays through November 12, 2023, presented by Rockville Musical Theatre performing at the F. Scott Fitzgerald Theatre, 603 Edmonston Drive, Rockville, MD. Tickets ($26 for adults, $23 for seniors and students) are available online, by calling the box office at 240-314-8690, or emailing [email protected]. Online ticket sales end two hours prior to the performance.
The November 3 performance will feature ASL interpretation.
Book by Mel Brooks & Thomas Meehan
Music & Lyrics by Mel Brooks
Original Direction & Choreography by Susan Stroman
Directed & Choreographed by Colleen Prior & Michael Page
Music Directed by Michelle Harmon Bruno
Produced by Lindsay Hill
The complete cast credits are here.