Going in to see a stage musical based on a well-loved, popular movie, one can't help but have expectations -- and big ones. This is Mel Brooks' Young Frankenstein we're talking about. There's always a risk when you try to re-vamp a classic. As Broadway has been suffering the past few years, because of the economy, because of a lack of creativity, things like movies and existing songbooks of popular artists have been turned into musicals. After John Waters' Hairspray successfully made the transformation from film to stage, about five years later another, less-popular John Waters film, Cry Baby, was adapted to the stage with little recognition or praise. Young Frankenstein follows in this path, being put on the stage after the great success of Mel Brooks' The Producers going from film to stage and winning twelve Tonys in 2001. And, like Cry Baby, the second time around may be pushing it.
The story sticks closely to that of the film's, if it's not exactly the same, with, from what I could tell, only subtle changes in dialogue between characters. Some of these included small additions that attempted to modernize aspects of the story and thus make it more relatable for modern audiences. The scene where Frau Blucher (cue the horse sounds) offers Dr. Frankenstein brandy, then warm milk, then Ovaltine, was done the same way it is done in the film, only this time Frau finally offers the Doctor a grande caramel macciato, or something of the like, the humor obviously being that such a drink would not be available in an old Gothic castle, the same humor used with the previously offered Ovaltine but just stretching the joke even further to squeeze in a few more laughs. I felt that this was happening during the majority of the show; the only truly hilarious moments were the ones taken directly from the movie, and we, or at least those of us who have seen the original film (which I sincerely hope is most of us!), already have an idea of how the jokes should take place -- it's big shoes to fill when an actor has to say the same hysterical one-liners as Gene Wilder but in a new, even funnier way. I think a lot of the show was just that: regurgitation of what was already funny on its own in the movie. Even a handful of the songs in the stage show take their titles and refrains from the more well-known lines in the film, such as Inga suggesting "A Roll in the Hay" or Frau declaring that Victor Frankenstein "Vas My Boyfriend!" Somehow they're just funnier when spoken in black and white by Teri Garr and Cloris Leachman, respectively, than when sung and danced about for three minutes onstage. Also, in general, sacrifices have to be made in the translation from film to stage, and much creativity and ingenuity are needed to make the differences work. There were times in the show where film techniques would be mimicked, like when the Doctor is reading his grandfather's notes on how he created his monster and the rest of the gang is trying to pass the time; there would be a blackout in between each passage of time, with everybody in new positions doing different things, playing cards, playing Bingo, waiting on the Doctor to finish reading, to show progression of time. This exact technique is used in the movie only much more fittingly so, as it is easier and snappier to do this in a film than on the stage.
However, a piece of its own deserves be judged on its own and not stand only as a comparison to its predecessors. If I were to have seen Young Frankenstein the stage musical having not known the movie, I certainly would have found it original and refreshing. But, as it is, this is not the case. The cast themselves were, by no means, lacking in talent; on the contrary, Roger Bart, who played Dr. Frankenstein, received an Outer Critics Circle nomination for his origination of the role on Broadway and has many former credits to stand as evidence for his experience. He even provided the singing voice for Hercules in the animated Disney film. And then there's Shuler Hensley as the Monster, who, I was surprised to read, once played the formidable Javert in a Broadway production of Les Miserables.
Although it may be difficult to look past the original Mel Brooks film -- because why would you want to? -- the stage version of Young Frankenstein provides mild laughs and could serve as a nice, tame evening out. Just don't bring the kids; it is still Mel Brooks. Whenever you might be tempted to yawn or roll your eyes at a cheesier, made-for-the-stage joke that falls flat, you'll be jolted back to your senses when one of the many sexual innuendos smacks you across the face. And if this stage adaptation does one thing, although it may not bring anything new to the table, it proves that Mel Brooks' humor is still just as fresh, funny, and jaw-dropping as it was in 1974 when Young Frankenstein was first released. There's just something about the f-bomb being dropped onstage in a theaterful of people young and old that puts a smile on your face and prevents you from piling on too much derision.