November 10, 2007

"Frankenstein," "Young Frankenstein" & Me

If you ran a popularity contest, Frankenstein would certainly be among the finalists for everyone's favorite monster story. Until now. I've never much cared for horror movies and so I belong to that embarrassed minority of people who have never seen James Whale's 1931 version of "Frankenstein" or Mel Brooks' original 1974 "Young Frankenstein." But even I have kind of an affection for the old green guy and over the past two weeks I couldn't resist seeing the off-Broadway musical, Frankenstein and The New Mel Brooks Musical Young Frankenstein (to call it by its full formal name), which, of course, was the most anticipated show of the Broadway season. I bet I would have had a better time at the movies.

Each of the musicals is a horror in its own way. The off-Broadway production at the 37 Arts theater is a gloomy affair with music by Mark Baron and book and lyrics by Jeffrey Jackson that evoke the worst of the British megamusicals that were big in the '80s. Young Frankenstein (to call it by the name everyone does) is little more than a remake of The Producers in monster drag; only this time the gags and Brooks' pastiche songs are only intermittently amusing and
there's no Nathan Lane or Matthew Broderick to make you laugh even when the jokes aren't all that funny.

And that's one of the big problems that both these new shows share: leading men who aren't big enough to lead the productions they're in. Hunter Foster was just right for the boy ingénue parts of Seymour in Little Shop of Horrors and Bobby Strong in Urinetown, but I didn't believe for a second that he was the tormented doctor in Frankenstein driven mad by his obsession to recreate life so tha
t he might bring back the loved ones he'd lost. Roger Bart was an hilarious standout as the effeminate Carmen Ghia in The Producers but in Young Frankenstein, he is dwarfed by big-personality performers like Shuler Hensley as the monster; Sutton Foster as Inga, the doctor’s assistant; Megan Mullally as his fiancée Elizabeth; Christopher Fitzgerald as his humpbacked go-fer Igor; and the always magnificent Andrea Martin as his creepy housekeeper Frau Blucher.

The most successful Broadway horror stories have been anchored by spellbinding actors. The slyly seductive Frank Langella propelled the 1977 production of Dracula that went on to play 925 performances. A mesmerizing Michael Crawford helped launch the 8,200 and still counting performances of The Phantom of the Opera. And Robert Cuccioli brought a compelling angst to Frank Wildhorn's Jekyll & Hyde, which ran for 1,543 performances. If you're going to see a play or a musical about a mad scientist or a monster, you want him to be frighteningly mad in a straight telling of the tale or zanily madcap in a comedic one. You don't want him to be as cute and chipper as a chipmunk.

My husband K and I had gone to see Young Frankenstein on the eve of K's birthday and, in need of some cheer after we left the Hilton Theatre (ironically one of the few theaters not affected by the stagehands’ strike that has closed down most of Broadway today) we walked down 42nd Street to Chez Josephine, the French bistro owned by Jean-Claude Baker, the adopted son of the legendary entertainer Josephine Baker. It is unfailingly one of the best shows in town, from the images of Josephine that decorate the red walls to the pianist who plays show tunes (Harry Connick, Jr. once had the job). But the biggest attraction is Jean-Claude himself. Always nattily dressed in smoking jackets or caftans, he makes a point of coming to each table and chatting with patrons as though they were old friends. We traded opinions about Young Frankenstein and he told us a story about how he had arranged for the cast of Three Mo’ Tenors to sing at a birthday party for Jessye Norman and how they so impressed the great opera star that she joined in singing to herself. Then he swept off to visit other tables and K and I tucked into our dinners (lobster cassoulet for him, boudin noir, the wonderful French black sausage, and crispy frites for me.) It was, by far, the most entertaining part of the evening.

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