Young Frankenstein (Phoenix Ensemble)
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.