Perfect timing for the run of the horror-themed musical comedy, Young Frankenstein. San Diego Musical Theatre’s production of the show, based on the classic Mel Brooks film, is a great way to celebrate Halloween early.
Following the death of the mad scientist Victor Frankenstein (Randall Eames), his grandson Frederick (Kevin Hafso Koppman) learns that he now owns the deceased researcher’s Transylvania castle. Wanting nothing to do with his probably unethical and insane late grandfather, Victor isn’t sure what to make of the news.
However, after spending some time at Victor’s castle, Frederick finds a secret passageway into the laboratory and decides to keep his ancestor’s legacy alive by reanimating a dead body. Once the body comes to life, it becomes an angry monster (Donny Gersonde) that endangers his creator and might pose a threat to the general Transylvania citizenry. Hoping to prove that the monster is capable of love, Frederick tries everything in his power to bond with the misunderstood creature.
Although the production at the Horton Grand Theatre can’t really be labeled as scary, director Larry Raben creates a retro atmosphere that’s inspired by classic Frankenstein films. He makes Transylvania into a place that’s both threatening and comical.
Crewmembers such as lighting designer Michelle Miles, costume designer Janet Pitcher, set designer Mathys Herbert (also courtesy of Networks) and projectionist David Engel all pay homage to the classic horror films of yesteryear. Kevin Anthenill’s audio, however, was a little too loud in spots on opening night, but his use of effects such as thunder and the sound of mice do fit well with the horror-influenced visuals. It’s amusing to see all of these potentially scary elements used in lighthearted ways, particularly during the big group dance numbers.
Daniel Smith’s choreography, adapted from that of the original Broadway director/ choreographer Susan Stroman (who is humorously referenced in this production), is delightful, especially in Irving Berlin’s “Puttin’ on the Ritz.” The complicated tap dance moves, along with frequent blackouts and color changes from Miles’ lighting, earned an enthusiastic response from the audience.
Young Frankenstein makes an impression with the visuals and dancing but, in order to succeed, the production still needs to be funny.
Classic humor from the original screenplay by Brooks and Gene Wilder is preserved in Brooks and Thomas Meehan’s book, and many of their scenes blend the old jokes with newer gags that keep the story irreverent and hilarious.
Brooks’ songs mix melodies with raunchy and crude lyrics, and numbers such as “Please Don’t Touch Me,” “Together Again” and “Listen to Your Heart” work well because of his expert sense of timing.
Matching the humor onstage is the Young Frankenstein Orchestra, led by resident music director/conductor, Don Le Master. Musicians play music ranging from klezmer and dramatic ballads to romantic compositions.
The ensemble is vocally strong, and its stars, including Koppman, Gersonde, Christine Hewitt as the Castle Transylvania housekeeper Frau Blucher, and Troy Tinker playing both the gruff Inspector Kemp and a lonely hermit, are all game for Brooks’ lowbrow gags. Each of them aren’t afraid to appear ridiculous or silly.
The two women important to Frederick, Kelly Derouin as his Swedish assistant Inga, and Melina Kalomas as his unaffectionate fiancée Elizabeth, turn in excellent performances, and are very witty.
Perhaps best capturing Brooks’ tongue-in-cheek nature is Jonathan Sangster, who portrays Frederick’s bizarre and fairly loyal hunchbacked assistant Igor. He gets some of the best new material from Brooks and Meehan, and handles their clever lines with energetic and comedic skill.
While the script might not appear to provide a deep evening, there is a strong message about acceptance and being kind to others. The writers treat Frederick’s quest to have others accept the monster in an earnest way and, as a result, we care about what will happen to both of them.
Raben’s rendition of Young Frankenstein doesn’t skimp on a Halloween friendly ambience or big laughs, and his version reminds audiences that Brooks is a one-of-a-kind storyteller.