Frankenstein funnery

Young Frankenstein (Phoenix Ensemble)

Pavilion Theatre

February 1 – 23

“I’ve never seen it, but it is Mel Brooks so should be funny.” This is how I attempted to entice a +1 along to Phoenix Ensemble’s production of “Young Frankenstein”, the stage version of Brooks’ 1974 horror-movie spoof. It is quite an apt summary actually; the musical is very Brooks and very funny in its witty parody of the musical genre and vaudevillian traditions.

The story of “Young Frankenstein” (officially known as “The New Mel Brooks Musical: Young Frankenstein”) closely parallels that of its source text. Despite attempts to distance himself from his heritage, American professor of neurology Frederick Frankenstein (pronounced at his insistence as Fronkensteen) is lured back to Transylvania to settle his grandfather’s Victor’s estate. Once he arrives, he is tempted to stay by faithful hunchback, and grandson of Victor’s henchman, Igor (David McLaughlin) and yodelling-lab assistant Inga (Vivien Wood). Soon Frederick is lured to join the family business and repeat his grandfather’s experiment of implanting a new brain in the body of a giant corpse, thus enlivening The Monster (Brendan Dieckmann).

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Along the way, there are laughs aplenty and the spectacle of ensemble song and dance number entertainment, such as the multi-styled ‘Transylvania Mania, a doozie new dance phenomenon invented on the spur of the moment to distract angry villagers from the sounds of the awakened monster. But the early highlight is when the duo of Frederick and Igor unite ‘like Ginger and Freddie… or meatballs and spaghetti’ in ‘Together Again (for the first time)’ a delightful send-up of a musical comedy double act number. As in this song, clever lyrics and mischievous rhymes showcase much of the show’s not-so-subtle double-entendred innuendo, which is also often enhanced by the nuanced looks and gestures of McLaughlin who is always on-point as Igor.

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This is a dynamic group of performers who all convey an exuberant comic charm through their apparent understanding that comedy only works if it is played played straight.  As Frederik, Zach Price is pure musical theatre in both his vocals and physical style, particularly seen in his nervous awkwardness around the buxom assistant he has working under him (cue puns a-plenty, all intended), until his untouchable high-maintenance fiancée Elizabeth (Samara Martinelli) reappears on the scene. In complement, McLaughlin is a simply sensational as the impish sidekick Igor. All bug-eyed, bent-over and clown-like, he commands attention, even when as backdrop to the main on-stage action. His non-sequitur comedy and comments contribute much to the show’s hilarity, both in dialogue and song.

Fiona Buchanan’s performance as mysterious violin player Frau Blucher, the stern housekeeper of the estate, is also spot-on. She is not only hilarious in in her straight-faced intensity, but her Cabaret-esque tell of her past with the late Victor in ‘He Vas My Boyfriend’ is another genuine musical highlight. And while The Monster barely speaks a word, in Dieckmann’s hands, the character is a riot, especially as he progresses from pitiful to new-and-improved, in the top-hat-and-tails Fred Astaire-style tap number, Irving Berlin’s ‘Puttin’ on the Ritz’. His barely coherent bellows are hilarious even in repetition and the eventual full ensemble chorus number stands strong as Act Two’s highlight.

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Impressive harmonies characterise each of the musical numbers; the entire cast showcases excellent vocal abilities, not just in comic numbers but melodic songs like Act Two’s early ‘Listen to Your Heart’ from Wood as Inga. Musical numbers are also enhanced by Hanna Crowther’s quick choreography which interacts well with a simple scenic design that allows for some great gimmicky moments. Initially music competes with vocals in audience introduction to the villagers of Transylvania Heights in ‘The Happiest Town in Town’, however this soon settles to its place in support. Some microphone cue lapses and static also occasionally interrupt enjoyment, but these can be evenly forgiven given the otherwise overall excellence.

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Unlike Brooks’ hit musical “The Producers”, “Young Frankenstein” is very much an ensemble vehicle and Phoenix Ensemble has assembled an absolutely stellar cast, meaning that experience of the show flies by in a well-paced flood of laughter and song. This is, indeed, a monster of a show and while it may be old-fashioned in its shtick, its energetic fun is so shamelessly silly that you can’t help be caught up in the madcappery of its high-quality low comedy. It is not often that audience members probably leave an amateur show already wanting to see it again, however, the funnery of experience of “Young Frankenstein” is so impressive that this is very much the case, in fitting with it being among the best amateur productions I have ever seen.

Broadway business

The Producers (Savoyards)

Iona Performing Arts Centre

September 23 – October 7

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Sometimes the business of Broadway is that you do can do everything right but still go wrong. Sometimes, the opposite can occur too…. Such is the story behind Mel Brooks’ movie and subsequent musical, “The Producers”. Failed Producer Max Bialystock used to be the king of old Broadway, with the biggest hits. Now, he has lost his touch so makes his money by seduction of elderly women as investors. ….until he stumbles upon a seemingly failsafe scheme to profit from a flop. He partners with timid accountant Leo Bloom to produce what they hope will be the biggest failure in the history of commercial theatre (whose shares they can oversell), the offensive “Springtime for Hitler” gay romp about Adolf and Eva in Berchtesgaden, aka the worst musical ever written, helmed by the worst director in New York City and with the worst actors occupying all of its roles.

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And so the chaos begins and in Savoyard Musical Comedy Society’s production of what Mel Brooks himself describes as ‘an evening of insanity and pleasure’, the chaos is quite delicious. The show starts strongly with the two leads, Gary Rose as the very Jewish and over-the-top Bialystock and Joshua Thia as the anxious and unsure-of-himself Bloom, sharing an immediate on-stage chemistry. The production has everything a good old fashioned musical needs, particularly its tried and tested, sometimes politically incorrect, humour. Indeed, it is irreverently self-aware in its offer of something for everyone comedy-wise; there is bawdy, one-liner humour that completely works alongside wittier, more intellectual allusions and puns.

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Musical numbers are quite magnificent in both their eclecticism and their production values. ‘I Want to Be a Producer’ serves as an Act One highlight, as Bloom sings of his secret desire to leave the drudgery of accounting to have his heart set afire by seeing his name in lights, complete with a chorus of supporting showgirls and an entertaining tap dance sequence. ‘Springtime for Hitler’ is another, later, example of the show’s unified choreography, staging, costumes and impressive live music soundtrack under Mark Beilby’s direction.

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To be a genuine success, however, the show needs to nail it with the two leads and in this regard, Savoyards’ production excels. Rose is a perfectly devious but twinkle-eyed Bialystock, while triple threat, Thia is outstanding, from the anxious and awkward Bloom of Act One through to his increasingly excitable sensibility in later sections. His embrace of every opportunity within the role’s physicality, with hilarious facial expressions and exciting physical comedy, make him enormously fun to watch.

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Walter Lago is a riot as Franz Liebkind, the ex-Nazi writer of the musical within a musical, at times conveying a John-Cleese-like sensibility in his normalised absurdity. Grace Glarke is appropriately faux-Swedish as Ulla, the jiggly dancer/receptionist at the newly amalgamated Bialystock and Bloom, David Morris brings immense energy and interest to the role of Director Roger Debris when stepped into the musical’s lead role and Scott Edwards is a scene-stealing Carmen Ghia, his flamboyant common law assistant.

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“The Producers” was a smash hit on Broadway, winning a record-breaking 12 Tony Awards, so any intended production is going to be an ambitious undertaking, especially for an independent theatre company. This is musical theatre on the grandest of scales with a long running time and cast of over two dozen. Under Gabriella Flowers’ Artistic Direction, Savoyards have produced a polished and professional show. Hannah Crowther’s tight choreography and Sherrly-Lee Secomb’s clever set design work well to establish and quickly transition between scenes while maintaining the show’s essential energy and feel-good factor. Unfortunately, this could not distract from the ongoing sound issues on Opening Night.

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“The Producers” puts the comedy back in musical comedy, with Mel Brooks evident in its every aspect. The show went on to become one of the biggest hits in modern Broadway memory and this production loses none of what made the original such an enormous success. Savoyards’ highly entertaining and thoroughly recommended share of the classic Broadway story is appropriately full of colour and movement, frivolity and funny, funny moments… including a pigeon named Adolf who almost steals the show. As a musically and visually stunning reminder that there is no business like show business, this is one of the best amateur productions around and, as such, should be seen by all who, like Ulla, think if you got it, flaunt it!

Photos c/o – Christopher Thomas