Often for better, but sometimes for worse, Mel Brooks throws every comedic idea at the wall to see what shtiks. Three movie masterpieces have emerged from his anything-goes creative process: After The Producers and Blazing Saddles, Brooks reached his artistic pinnacle with Young Frankenstein. But though Brooks transformed The Producers into a smash Broadway musical–how could he go wrong with a musical based on a film about a fraudulent musical?–Young Frankenstein never quite captured the same spark onstage. (Let’s all agree Blazing Saddles is unadaptable, even though Brooks has been talking up the possibility and even writing songs for it for years.)
After a so-so run of a little over a year on Broadway starting in the fall of 2007 and two subsequent national tours, Brooks retooled Young Frankenstein, cutting the original opening number and three other songs, adding several new ones, etc. He ended up stitching together a show that premiered on London’s West End in the fall of 2017 to greater critical acclaim, though its run ended in just under a year.
That reworked West End version of Young Frankenstein is getting its Chicago premiere in a spirited Mercury Theater production that will delight fans of the film even as the material still struggles to reach the comedic heights of The Producers.
Among the many highlights of this Young Frankenstein, two cast members stand out: Ryan Stajmiger as Igor (pronounced EYEgor) and Mary Robin Roth as Frau Blücher. They draw just enough inspiration from Marty Feldman and Cloris Leachman to make the characters recognizable, but then freshen things up with their own offbeat takes and manic energy. Stajmiger’s jump-starting of the winning duet “Together Again” and Roth’s all-in rendition of “He Vas My Boyfriend” are the first act’s musical peaks.
Lillian Castillo has a lot of naughty, bawdy fun belting raunchy numbers like “Please Don’t Touch Me” and “Deep Love” in the role of Elizabeth Benning, Dr. Frederick Frankenstein’s fiancee, played in the film by Madeline Kahn. And Isabella Andrews elicits big laughs as she displays her big assets with aplomb as Inga, the bimbo lab assistant and emerging Frankenstein love interest originated by Teri Garr.
Andrew MacNaughton kills, literally and figuratively, as The Monster, especially during the one musical number from the film, in which he appears onstage in top hat and tails, spinning his cane and howling up a storm in “Puttin’ On the Ritz,” his show-stopping duet with the good doctor.
That gaspingly funny scene and the one between the Monster and a lonely, bumbling blind hermit–played by a hilariously over-the-top understudy Callan Roberts on opening night (complete with a fake beard with the mouth hole pulled down over his chin)–who serves his new undead buddy a meal that includes a crotch-bound ladle full of “boiling hot soup” are alone worth the price of admission.
The only thing missing from this picture is Dr. Frankenstein (that’s FrONKunSHTEEN, as the running gag goes) himself. Sean Fortunato recently turned in a brilliantly funny performance as the Devil in Damn Yankees at the Marriott Lincolnshire. It’s hard to think of a better local actor to cast in the role made famous by Gene Wilder. And Fortunato nails his duets with Igor and the Monster, even as he displays deft comic timing throughout. He’s pretty great.
But Fortunato’s performance will be even better when he figures out a way within these admittedly tight narrative confines to give us a truly imperious and uptight Dr. Frankenstein in the opening scenes so that we can revel in his later transformation into a corpse-reanimating maniac. Right now, Fortunato plays pre-Transylvania Frankenstein with too much sardonic savoir faire.
Great comedies need great straight men, and that’s the only thing this Young Frankenstein lacks.
Young Frankenstein runs through December 31 at Mercury Theater Chicago.
For a full roundup of reviews of this show, visit Theatre in Chicago.
Photo by Liz Lauren