Thursday, Nov. 4, 2010

Dissecting Young Frankenstein

Seeing the Musical Right After the Film

By Russ Bickerstaff
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Marty FeldmanCory English

As it had been a couple of decades since I’d seen Young Frankenstein,I decided to sit down and watch it just a couple of hors before going to see the musical.

 

According to Mel Brooks, the entire idea for the original film was Milwaukee native Gene Wilder’s. The comic actor/writer evidently agreed to do Blazing Saddles if they could work on Young Frankenstein next. Wilder’s distinctive print is very visible in the film.

The strange mixing of highbrow socio-cultural satire mixes with more traditional lowbrow, screwball comedy that is Brooks’ trademark. The mix of the two different comedic styles evidently resulted in a rather abysmal first cut. At over three hours in length, the film had to be cut to a reasonably tight 106 minutes. Even that cut ended up feeling quite sparse as I would come to recall on seeing the film again for the first time in years. It matches the pacing of an old Universal horror film—not much actually happens. And there aren’t actually very many jokes. The ones that made it into that final cut are all quite popular, having helped to make the film the cut classic that it is . . .

And I suppose what with the film’s content being as light and quick as it is, I shouldn’t have been surprised that nearly the entire script of the film . . . almost line for line  . . . makes it into the musical. It was like watching the exact same story play-out twice: once in private on a video screen and once with a rather large group of people in a huge Uihlein Hall made all the more huge by an orchestra and a ridiculously massive sound system.

The only bits that the musical leaves out are the more length scientific and poetic bits that were likely the work of Wilder. The musical trades sophistication for big, classy song and dance numbers, some of which are quite impressive, but for the most part, the current touring production abandons comedy for musical comedy. Christopher Ryan (in the title role) and much of the rest of the cast go through the motions with the comedic end of things. It's not difficult to blame them . . . as is the case with other cult classic comedies that have made it to the musical stage in recent years, audiences tend to laugh at the jokes before they're uttered. As an actor, this must feel like being at the head of a massive comedy machine, the success of which has very little to do with their individual performances.

The most notable exception to the overall comic mediocrity of the production seems to being Cory English in the role of Igor. The role in the original film had been written for British comic talent Marty Feldman. I always remember Feldman as being really brilliant in the film, but having seen it years later now, it occurs to me that Feldman was kind of on comedic autopilot with the role. He was having fun, clearly, but it didn’t seem like he was really inspired. The touring Broadway productions’ Cory English moves around in the character with a greater grace . . . managing to juggle many things at once. English’s comic performance as Igor doesn’t cause the musical end of his performance to suffer at all. It’s not the best example of a truly great touring Broadway beast, but English’s performance makes it feel just a little bit more inspired, lacking though it does the distinctive Gene Wilder touch that made the film such a classic in the first place.

The touring production of Young Frankenstein continues through November 7th at the Marcus Center. A far more concise review of the show runs in next week's Shepherd-Express.

 

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