I’m a huge fan of Gene Wilder & Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein. Released in 1974, it’s the paragon of horror-comedies for me and the most lovingly crafted homage to the Gothic monster movies of the 1930s I’ve ever seen. Not only is it funny, but it does what all the best sequels/ reboots should: it does justice to the original, whilst also creating new characters to love and root for.
So, naturally, I was both excited and anxious when I heard that it would be turned into a musical, because how can you improve on perfection? And who could ever do justice to the roles originated by Gene Wilder and co? But, then again, the last time a Mel Brooks classic was Broadway-ified was The Producers, and for me its musical adaptation is far superior to the original.
With that hope in mind, I took my seat in the Garrick Theatre and waited to be impressed. It didn’t take long for that to happen. Far and away the best thing about this production is Hadley Fraser as the eponymous scientist burdened with a monstrous legacy. Fraser has always had a wonderful presence on the stage – his performance as Raoul in the 25th Anniversary adaptation of The Phantom of the Opera is the only time I have ever liked that particular character – but he’s incandescent as Frederick Frankenstein, grandson of Victor, who is initially resolved to shirk his infamous heritage. He impressively handles his introductory song ‘The Brain’ in which he elegantly and eloquently rattles off a wordy self-treatise that rivalled the Major General’s song for speed and complexity. From that moment on, he had the audience in the palm of his hand. Gene Wilder is a singularly hard act to follow, but Fraser owns the role and makes it his own, mixing arrogance and charm with vulnerability and compassion, and crafting a wonderfully fulfilling character arc whilst singing, dancing and acting with brio from the first note to the last.
Ross Noble is charged with the responsibility of inhabiting the inimitable Marty Feldman in the role of Igor, Frederick Frankenstein’s eccentric accomplice. Happily, he too decides on evocation over imitation, and delivers a knowingly offbeat performance that nicely complements Fraser’s more prudish counterpart; their amusing dynamic is nicely showcased in the ‘Together Again’ duet, complete with physical comedy and the iconic ‘walk this way’ joke. Lesley Joseph approaches the role of Frau Blucher (*frenzied neighing*) with admirable gusto, belting out the standout Ursula-esque number ‘He Vas My Boyfriend!’ with joyful abandon. However, the speaking segments of the song were a bit unnecessary, clumsily and crudely spelling out what the song has thus far aptly alluded to – though the blame for this lies with the writers. But though Cloris Leachman set a high bar, Joseph is hilarious in the role and it was great to see her less as an antagonist (as she was for most of the film) and more as a core member of the main team throughout.
However, something that irked me about this musical was the way in which the female leads were framed. It’s shocking that a production in 2018 manages to sexualise its female characters even more than a film from the 70s does. But with Summer Strallen’s Inga, they do just that – something which seems especially egregious when the male characters don’t receive the same framing or treatment. The character of Inga, originated by Teri Garr, was always progressively, defiantly in control of her sexuality – though it was often utilised more in the enterprise of producing innuendo than in asserting her strength as a character and her admirable sexual agency. Strallen’s two major musical numbers – ‘Roll in The Hay’ and ‘Listen to Your Heart’ – are both laden with sexual innuendo and mostly involve her draping herself seductively over Frederick. It would seem progressive but for the framing, which is planted firmly in Male Gaze territory. However, the lyrical content of those songs are perhaps more layered than they may seem on the surface: the former is, at its core, a Hakuna Matata-style treatise on letting go of your worries; and the latter is an interesting gender reversal of the usual dynamics between heterosexual couples in musicals – this time, it’s the woman who seduces the man through song. Strallen is a sparkling stage presence, and it’s a credit to her skill and charm that she renders the role as more than a bland stereotype.
Even the character of Elizabeth, whose disgust at the thought of touching her fiancée Frederick is the butt of many jokes, is sexualised (along with Inga) where the male characters are not. Her solo ‘Please Don’t Touch Me’ has an extended section in which she repeats a vulgar term for a part of her anatomy over and over again – much to Frederick’s sexually-frustrated chagrin – that proved ultimately more embarrassing than entertaining. Again, there are some interesting, even admirable, elements of the song – it’s arguably an example of a female character asserting her own sexual agency and establishing boundaries in a relationship. However, it’s framed as if Elizabeth is cruelly leading Frederick on, and her lack of romantic attraction to him is starkly confirmed when she later engages in a whirlwind romance with the Creature.
A lot of these problematic aspects admittedly have their roots in the source material; as with all Mel Brooks properties, there are as many potentially offensive jokes as there are progressive ones, to be found in the 1974 original as well as here. Madeline Kahn is damn near irreplaceable in the role, but Dianne Pilkington’s amazing voice and great comedic chops are both allowed to shine in spades. Her interactions with the Creature are a particular highlight – and Nic Greenshields portrays the hulking outcast with just the right balance of monstrosity and vulnerability. He had to hit all the right comedic beats both in physical and verbal performance, and managed to achieve the balance that his predecessor Peter Boyle achieved all those years ago.
I have to commend the production design for its creativity; all of the settings were atmospherically invoked, the Gothic laboratory in particular, as well as the horse-drawn hay cart being pulled by guys in War Horse-esque equine puppet heads (it looked better than I’m describing it). However, I’m in two minds about the Transylvania Mania sequence, which was a conceit of the production rather than the movie. In it, Frederick, Inga and Igor have to distract Inspector Kemp and the townspeople from investigating the reanimated Creature’s howling, so they fabricate this tacky dance crazy on the fly. It was nicely staged, and objectively amusing, but it just felt a little pointless.
I have to say, the townsfolk storyline overall never involved me even in the original movie, and it continues to fall a little flat here, despite enthusiasm from the chorus and some fantastic costuming. Every scene with them feels a little dull, except when Patrick Clancy moodily storms around as the animatronically-armed Inspector Kemp. He also plays the lonely Hermit, the better role of the two, and the one which earned the most laughs in the shortest time period. His dry delivery and aged prosthetics called to mind Billy Crystal’s Miracle Max in The Princess Bride, and his melancholy, musical plea to ‘Please Send Me Someone’ was a standout number of the whole show. His performances as Kemp and the hermit were so dissimilar that I genuinely didn’t know they were played by the same guy until he ripped off his hermit beard during the final bow – serious kudos to Clancy for that.
However, the number which stood head and shoulders above the rest was, of course, ‘Puttin’ On the Ritz’, and how could it not be? The show takes the original’s delightful novelty of Frankenstein dancing with his monster, and turns it up to 11. They absolutely make the most of their theatrical setting, transforming what was once a duet into a chorus-line of joy and strangeness and 30s charm. I particularly like how every cast member is part of the number this time around, and in fact the group/ friendship dynamic is (happily) front and centre in this version.
I also like the expansion of the romantic aspects of the story. Frederick and Inga’s blossoming relationship was enjoyable, mainly due to the chemistry between Fraser and Strallen, who made even the hokiest romantic/ innuendo-laden dialogue charming through their line readings alone. But the other characters get a little love too: from the unexpected union of Frau Blucher (*frenzied neighing*) and the blind hermit, to the expansion of Elizabeth’s liaison with the Creature.
One of the happy surprises was the inclusion of the original film’s main musical theme, a hauntingly angsty violin solo that is also beautifully integral to the plot because of the humanising effect it has on the Creature. I’ll try to avoid spoilers, but there is a moment at the climax of this musical where Frederick sings a song to this iconic melody (‘Frederick’s Soliloquy’) and it was without a doubt one of the best moments of theatre I’ve ever seen. It beautifully completes Frederick’s character arc – as a scientist, as a Frankenstein, as his own person – and also heals the past wrongs with which his legacy had burdened him. It is an emotional, poignant and utterly transcendent moment in a Mel Brooks comedy musical – and if that’s not one hell of an achievement, I don’t know what is.
The lines don’t have quite the mix of bombast and subtlety that the original pioneered, but some of that comedic nuance needs to be abandoned when translating into the theatrical medium. I was pleasantly surprised at how much of the original this musical adaptation maintained, particularly its core message of lonely outcasts finding acceptance and affection with each other. Just as Victor Frankenstein stitched together his Creature, so does his grandson Frederick weave a family for himself, and in so doing, heal the wounds of the past. If you have even the slightest Gothic tendencies, or if you enjoy a bit of comedy/ horror with your laughs, I highly recommend Young Frankenstein: the Musical for an abby-normally good night out!