MATUNUCK — Theatre By The Sea closes out its 2015 season with a production of Mel Brooks’ “Young Frankenstein” – and it has all the makings of a monstrous smash hit.
Producer Bill Hanney and Director-Choreographer Kevin Hill have gone big with the bawdy, madcap musical comedy and the resulting creation is loud, brash, energetic and outrageous. This is old school entertainment – a larger-than-life, vaudevillian, burlesque spectacle, which feels completely at home in Matunuck’s historic barn playhouse.
The musical, written by Brooks and Thomas Meehan, is an adaption of Brooks’ 1974 cult classic comedy film of the same name, which itself was an affectionate spoof on Mary Shelley’s gothic novel “Frankenstein” and particularly the horror movie genre of the silent film era. The story follows Dr. Frederick Frankenstein, grandson of the mad scientist Viktor, who has gone to great lengths to distance himself from his heritage (even insisting on an alternative pronunciation of his family name – “Fronkensteen”).
Young Frankenstein is forced to return to the old family haunted castle in Transylvania Heights to deal with his inheritance, where he is ultimately compelled (by a showstopping dream sequence, of course) to “Join the Family Business.” Brooks’ musical adaptation of his own film followed up on his critically acclaimed, smash-hit musical, “The Producers.” “Young Frankenstein” opened on Broadway in 2010 to mostly disappointing reviews and closed after a run just shy of 500 performances.
Indeed, some of the criticisms of the musical are apt. It is at times overstuffed, overindulgent and scattershot. While many gags hit their mark, there are some misses – and when the shtick misses, it tends to miss big. The plot is bare-bones, character development is minimal and the jokes are relentlessly sophomoric, often corny, and never subtle. The music is catchy but not very memorable. Songs sometimes come out of nowhere and are frequently so flooded with Mel Brooksisms that they begin to wear out their welcome before the number ends. Let’s face it: This ain’t Rodgers and Hammerstein. But Theatre By The Sea comes out swinging big, and the result is electrifying. This is thoroughly lowbrow entertainment – a high-voltage concoction that is designed to keep you laughing until the end and send you home satisfied.
Hill is clearly the mad scientist behind this extravaganza, taking Brooks’ material and crafting a relentless, coordinated and dynamic evening of entertainment. All theatrical elements – comedy, music, dance and special effects – come together to create a show that is somehow bigger than the sum of all its parts.
The set design and technical elements lead the way. The scenic design is framed by layers of traveler curtains and backdrops that evoke elements of the original film right down to the opening credits, which are projected on the translucent main curtain. The special effects feel high budget, and include not just the requisite strobe lights and fog machines, but buzzing electrical flashes and a hydraulic lift that raises Frankenstein’s operating table to the ceiling, as well as an enormous monster puppet, which appears during “Join the Family Business.”
The cast is balanced and talented, and features good enough acting to deliver Brooks’ onslaught of lightning fast jokes without missing a beat. Tommy Labanaris channels just a hint of Gene Wilder’s zaniness as Frederick Frankenstein, but puts his own mark on the role and, most importantly, provides the straight man foundation upon which the comedy is built. Labanaris shows off some impressive dance moves during the biggest numbers and really epitomizes the production’s self-possessed and over the top tone.
Brad Bradley is a crowd favorite as Frankenstein’s iconic sidekick, Igor, frequently tossing the audience hilariously timed aside glances. Sandy Rosenberg steals the first act as the creepy Teutonic housekeeper, Frau Blucher (whose name, when mentioned, causes horses to whinny in fear). She hams it up during her unbridled and raunchy tribute to Frederick’s grandfather in “He Vas My Boyfriend” and later deadpans a line that had the opening night audience howling.
Mary Claire King takes one of Brooks’ recurring character types – the faux-naïf Bavarian bombshell, Inga – and plays it just right. She is fully committed, even in the most groan inducing bits, such as “Roll in the Hay,” and charms the audience, showing off both her singing and physical comedic talents while bouncing all over, around and on top of Frederick in the back of a jostling hay wagon.
But what stood out above all was not any individual performance, but the palpable chemistry between the actors, which builds over the course of the production, culminating during the show’s riotous and outrageous execution of the famous “Puttin’ on the Ritz” toward the end of the second act. In a production chock-full of showstoppers, this one brings down the house. The main characters are joined onstage by the Monster (Brian Padgett) in an extended tap dance extravaganza featuring the entire ensemble. Labanaris and the supporting cast have smiles on their faces and twinkles in their eyes. Confident and brazen, they know they are playing without a net and simply killing it. When Padgett reveals himself to be a giant triple threat, replete with back flip and split, the roof is blown off the place and everyone is in on the fun.
This is the magic that had the opening night audience springing to their feet as soon as the curtain dropped. Hanney and the gang take Brooks’ corny Borscht Belt material and create a monster – a first-rate, rollicking madcap comedy through and through. Don’t miss this one – you will not find more laughs, gags, puns, hijinks and punchlines per minute anywhere around. There’s likely no better grand finale for your summer than this production of “Young Frankenstein.”