There's a monster in the Cream City, und as long as ze young Frankenshtein walks the earth, ve vill never be safe! That's right Dear Reader, Mel Brooks' musical Young Frankenstein is come to the Ferndale Repertory Theater.
I have been a Mel Brooks fan since I was a tyke and stayed up later than I was allowed to watch Blazing Saddles at minimum volume while my mother slept in the next room. An old pal of mine from Boy Scouts and I watched each of his films more than I'm proud to say. So naturally, when I heard Young Frankenstein was coming to town I jumped at the chance to review it. (Well, strictly speaking, my editor asked if I wanted to do it and I said yes enthusiastically.) And I am so glad she did because our Ferndale friends, under the direction of Leira Satloff, have an excellent production running down there.
Adapted from the 1974 film of the same name, Young Frankenstein is a farcical satire of horror films and, more specifically, the nearly 50 films spawned from Mary Shelley's novel. It is classic Mel Brooks — rude, smutty, crass, eccentric, carefree and (some might say) careless. We follow Dr. Frederick Frankenstein (pronounced Fronk-en-shteen) on his journey toward self-discovery and destiny. An eminent surgeon and neuroscientist, he is the dean of anatomy at Johns, Miriam and Anthony Hopkins School of Medicine. Despite his considerable success and respect, he is consistently savaged by his grandfather's legacy (and a wife that deigns to be touched by him). Played by Richel Alexander Schmitt, Frankenstein sets off to his grandfather's Transylvanian estate upon hearing of his demise to collect the assets and bury the association once and for all.
Quickly though, ushered along by his buxom lab assistant Inga (Johanna Lena Turney) and the hunchback-with-a-shifting-hump Igor (Denise L. Ryles), the good doctor finds that the "family business" is more than a loathsome reputation — it is his true calling. He begins to revive his grandfather's work and fall in love with Inga. Inga is decidedly sexed-down in this iteration, which flattens the lewdness and implications of her character somewhat, but Turney makes up for it in effervescence and solid comedic timing. She can also really sing. Well, the whole cast can but Turney and Schmitt really shine. (Schmitt's Gene Wilder impression is pretty darn good, too.)
For my money, though, it is the half-wooden Inspector Kemp (David Powell) who steals the show. The inspector, who lost an arm and a leg to the grandfather Frankenstein's monster, leads the town against Frederick and his creation. Brooks, for better or worse, delights in playing disability for laughs, be it blindness or prostheses, and Powell nails every moment. He chews every scene like its his last meal, speaking with a wildly contorted face and an impossibly affected accent, and it's an absolute joy to watch. Ryles, too, deserves a shout for her Igor (pronounced, of course, Eye-gor). She stays so bent and hunched over throughout that her quads must be screaming by intermission. But she's never out of character for even the briefest of moments and her reactions are exceptional.
The musical makes some positive changes to the source material. In the film, the character of the hermit is played by Gene Hackman, and the scene serves little function other than to show the monster's (played by Jaison Chand, who can really move in 8-inch lifts) kindness and to get some laughs out of a blind guy serving food. In this iteration, the hermit is played by the tall Veronica Ruse. She is the only cast member over whom Chand does not tower and casting a woman as the hermit adds a nice nuance of romance and connection between the two.
Elizabeth (Emma Johnstone), the soon-to-be Mrs. Frankenstein, is also given more realization. Through some clever inflection and reinterpretation of the source material, Elizabeth turns from a frigid shrew — who experiences something very close to a rape at the hands of the monster — to a woman who comes halfway across the world to have an epiphany: She doesn't love Frederick. She doesn't want to be touched by him, not because of her fine clothes or nail polish or perfectly coiffed hair, but rather because he is effete and unsure of himself. What she wants is an imposing, self-possessed man of a larger ... caliber, shall we say.
These changes round out otherwise marginalized characters. They give them flesh and blood and realization. It's a welcome addition (particularly on Johnstone's part).
Brooks is an exceptional songwriter and our local voices makes his words soar. You'll want to buy a CD at the end of the show or at least go see it again. And "Transylvania Mania" will get stuck in your head for a week. Do yourself a favor and drive out to Ferndale.
Ferndale Repertory Theatre's Young Frankenstein runs Fridays, Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. through Oct. 28. Visit www.ferndalerep.org or call 786-5483.
Up for a British murder plot gone awry? North Coast Repertory Theatre's Dial M for Murder entertains with twists and double crosses through Oct. 7. Visit www.ncrt.net or call 442-6278.
It's a clash of roommates at Redwood Curtain Theatre when Ripcord opens on Oct. 25. The battle between a pair of opposites in a senior living facility runs through Nov. 17. Visit www.redwoodcurtain.com or call 443-7688.