Abandon all hopes of a serious night at the theater, all ye traveling back to Olde Transylvania via Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein at Walnut Street Theatre. You’ll laugh early and often at this horror-movie send-up from the Brooks’ musical comedy canon.
Intentionally anachronistic, it’s heavy on the vaudeville shtick und stoner non sequiturs — with lotsa hubba-hubba innuendo and rolling of eyes. There’s a werewolf running amok (“where?”) and cutely animated horses whinnying in terror at the mere mention of one ominous character’s name.
Young Frankenstein the musical is not quite The Producers in unmitigated balderdash, but it’s every bit as genre-spoofing and doofy as Brooks’ flicks Blazing Saddles and Spaceballs. And it’s played with just enough nudge-nudge, wink-wink by the Walnut’s comedically and vocally adept cast, stepping lively under Charles Abbott’s direction and in flashy production numbers fashioned by Mary Jane Houdina.
If you loved the 1974 Young Frankenstein movie, you’re already in on a lot of the dialogue, gags, and situations, which arguably improve with repetition, living color, and new musical amplification of characters. There’s an almost completely new score by Brooks, excepting the holdover Irving Berlin ringer “Puttin’ on the Ritz.”
Some opening-night savants were clearly in on the gags and cheering at the mere opening of favorite scenes — as when the Blind Hermit (Fran Prisco) inadvertently tortures our poor monster (Dan Olmstead) with misplaced kindness.
What we’re enjoying here is the shrunk down (though hardly dismembered) 2018 London update of the stage musical, which had first played Broadway in a more puffed-up form a decade ago. Four songs were cut, two new ones introduced, 20 minutes eliminated in the revamping.
The prominent film role of the part-mechanical man Inspector Kemp (also played by Prisco) was shaved some. But others, like ice princess Elizabeth (chilled to perfection by Casey Elizabeth Gill) are expanded in song — she with the droll “Please Don’t Touch Me” and “Deep Love.”
With the same crazy hair but less unnerved than film role originator Gene Wilder, Ben Dibble has lots of fun as the heir to the Frankenstein (“no, that’s Fronkensteen”) fortune who travels back to the ancestral home, discovers the secret stash of granddad’s research, and (being a scientist, too) just has to take another swing at bringing a corpse back to life.
With, of course, a little help from his bombshell assistant Inga (Alanna J. Smith), the shape-shifting hunchback ghoul-in-residence Igor (“make that Eye-gore”) played by the delicious scenery-chewing Luke Bradt, and late grandfather’s still-pining protectress Frau Blucher (juiced to a pulp by Walnut Street regular Mary Martello).
The Young Frankenstein movie was content just mocking the melodramatic, black-and-white spookiness of the 1930s Universal Pictures horror films Frankenstein and Son of Frankenstein. In the stage version, Brooks also jabs his parody pitchfork into the music. Listen for hints of Cabaret in “He Vas My Boyfriend” and the unmistakable whiff of My Fair Lady-like transformation “It Could Work.”
For the most part, the tunes are merely serviceable, honestly. But oh, those lyrics are a stitch!
News note: Walnut Street Theatre board president emeritus Matt Garfield announced just before Wednesday’s opening-night curtain his own $3 million lead donation for the Walnut’s new 400-seat theater-in-the-round that is slated to break ground this spring.
“I have to thank my parents … for having the foresight to name me after the theater,” he cracked. Yes, the new venue will bear his name — the Matt Garfield Stage. Mel Brooks would have laughed.
Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein: The Musical
Through Oct. 20 at Walnut Street Theatre, 825 Walnut St.