When the tall, beautiful dramatic actress Anne Bancroft was asked what had drawn her to Mel Brooks, the short, funny-looking creator of shows and movies filled with broad, cheesy, Borscht Belt-style humor to whom she ended up married, she replied, “Mel had a lethal weapon: He made me laugh to death. I fell instantly in love with him.” All through the Town Hall Arts Center’s production of Young Frankenstein — the musical Brooks wrote with Thomas Meehan — I kept thinking about what a deliriously happy marriage he and Bancroft must have had.
As the show opens, Victor von Frankenstein has just died, and the villagers of Transylvania Heights are rejoicing in the removal of his ghoulish presence from their midst. But there’s a grandson, a Dr. Frederick Frankenstein who teaches at the renowned Johns Miriam and Anthony Hopkins School of Medicine in New York. He’s so ashamed of his family legacy that he insists his name be pronounced “Fronkensteen” to distinguish himself from his grandfather. Informed of Victor’s death, he bids farewell to his fiancée, Elizabeth — who, just ask her, is an “adorable madcap,” but also intensely touch-averse — and goes to Transylvania to check things out. There he runs into hunchback Igor, beautiful villager Inga and Frau Blücher, his granddad’s onetime squeeze and a woman so sinister that the mere sound of her name sets horses whinnying. When he’s persuaded to resume the work of reanimating the dead, the results are predictably monstrous.
If that sounds like the plot of Young Frankenstein, the 1974 film, that’s because this is the second musical that Brooks based on one of his successful movies. The first was The Producers, and this show follows the movie more closely than that one did. But even if you know from the get-go what’s coming up and can anticipate every smutty joke (not having seen the film, I didn’t and couldn’t), this production is a crazy, laugh-filled good time. The star wattage on stage is amazing, the songs are tuneful, the direction — by Nick Sugar — is skilled, confident, precise and free-flowing. The set, costumes and special effects are ingenious, and any production that’s graced by the participation of musical director Donna Kolpan Debreceni and her players is bound to roll along on a buoyant, energizing current of sound. Perhaps the height of the production is a brilliant rendition of Irving Berlin’s “Puttin’ on the Ritz,” in which Frederick, The Monster, Inga and Igor are joined by everyone else in the large, talented cast.
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This is an ambitious show, and as for that cast — let me count the ways in which they excel. There’s strength everywhere: Eric Mather displaying a gift for physical comedy as both the one-armed, one-legged Inspector Hans Kemp and the lonely Hermit; Mark Shonsey playing the shambling Igor with infectious relish. Corey Wendling’s Frederick is an absurdly funny parody of an academic as ignorant about life and sex as he’s supposedly knowledgeable about the brain. Lithe Rebekah Ortiz gifts Inga with a fine voice and a cunningly deployed yodel. Fiancée Elizabeth, one of those vamping, narcissistic, Hollywood-style divas, is a gift for an actress, and Cashelle Butler not only fills the role beautifully, but endows it with a rich vitality. If the transformation of our Monster, TJ Hogle, from a howling, blubbery-voiced beast to a smooth English sophisticate isn’t enough to win his lady, Hogle’s melting tenor surely will. (Actually, it’s neither the tenor nor the sophistication that does the job; it’s the deep love enabled by his schwanzstuke.) And the cherry on the sundae: Annie Dwyer, whom we’ve missed since the closing of Heritage Square Music Hall, where she was a beloved regular, plays Frau Blücher — hurling herself into every comic moment and stretching each German-accented sentence until it threatens to snap like a frayed rubber band.
The top ticket price for the 2007 New York production of Young Frankenstein — which the New York Times panned as, among other things, deafeningly loud — was $450, which strikes me as obscene on more levels than I can list here. The top price for this high-spirited, professional-quality show — where the sound is at exactly the right volume — is in the low forties. So what are you waiting for? Tickets for this monster hit are going fast.
Young Frankenstein, presented by the Town Hall Arts Center through June 14, 2450 West Main Street, Littleton, 303-794-2787, townhallartscenter.com.