Monday, September 26, 2016

Review: YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN, It Vas a Fun Night, Ya

L-R: Tracy Lore, Chris Kauffmann, Larry Raben, and Anne Montavon.
Photos by Ed Krieger

When October hits and Halloween horror movies begin to flood late night TV, you can always count on at least one station somewhere to air Mel Brooks’ 1974 classic comedy
Young Frankenstein. But, this year, the situation is a little different. With the recent passing of Gene Wilder, who stars in the title role and also co-wrote the film with Brooks, Young Frankenstein has been making many more appearances than usual in tribute to Wilder’s uncommon genius. As a writer and actor, the film was some of his finest work and will continue to make audiences laugh for years to come.

Young Frankenstein is a brilliant spoof of the Universal Pictures 1930’s black and white horror movies Frankenstein and Son of Frankenstein, based on Mary Shelley’s gothic novel. In 2007, Mel Brooks, assisted by co-bookwriter Thomas Meehan, adapted the film as a stage musical which instantly became a hit with audiences. It isn’t surprising. The material is a natural fit for the stage with its spooky locale, dramatic storyline, and crazy characters and it has remained a crowd-pleaser ever since.

In a stroke of incredibly (and sadly) fortuitous timing, Palos Verdes Performing Arts had the show scheduled on its 2016 season. You can see their lively and entertaining production directed by James W. Gruessing, Jr. right now at the Norris Center and you should. It’s a wonderfully Wild(er) good time and a terrific way to begin the haunting season.

Anne Montavan, Chris Kauffmann and Larry Raben

All of the best jokes and bits are intact, from the “Roll in the Hay” wagon ride, which becomes a standout number for winsome Anne Montavon (Inga) singing and yodeling with innocent exuberance, to the classic revolving bookcase scene “put…the candle…down” for straight man Larry Raben (Dr. Frankenstein), to Tracy Lore’s (Frau Blucher) deliriously funny “He Vas My Boyfriend” reveal. Her performance of the outrageous comedy song is equal parts maudlin melodrama and throaty German Kit Kat Club chanteuse. It’s hard to say who corners the market on laughs more.

Raben bears an uncanny resemblance to Wilder, sounds like him when he speaks, and has impeccable timing in the deadpan humor department. The Monster (Pablo Rossil) he creates is a 7-foot tall endearing creature with sad eyes and a penchant for even sadder violin music. Their fancy footwork in the musical’s big splashy “Puttin’ on the Ritz” production number is delightful. Choreographer Daniel Smith builds dance numbers like “Ritz,”  “Welcome to Transylvania” and a spectacular “Join the Family Business” with distinctive moves from the original production but incorporates his own flair for comedy (watch for his twist on traditional Russian dance moves).

Vocally, the production also sounds great. Musical direction is by Sean Alexander Bart who leads a live 13-piece orchestra that creates a vividly dynamic presence in the auditorium (there’s not a bad seat anywhere). Voices are strong, diction is crisp, and featured soloists among the ensemble have plenty of moments to shine.

Greg Nicholas and Pablo Rossil

Gene Hackman nearly stole the film in his 5-minute role as a blind hermit the Monster visits when he escapes Frankenstein’s castle and Greg Nicholas makes the most of the scene and his hilarious want song “Please Send Me Someone.” He also doubles as the kooky Inspector Kemp who has given an arm and a leg in the pursuit of justice.

Lindsey Alley rolls out a big brassy belt voice as Elizabeth, Dr. Frankenstein’s fiancé and Chris Kauffmann takes on the role of Igor, Dr. Frankenstein’s assistant, but it’s almost impossible not to compare them to Madeline Kahn and Marty Feldman who created the roles. That’s not necessarily a good thing. Alley is quite a bit more abrasive and unlikable as the self-obsessed actress, although her staging is comical, but Kauffmann’s take on Igor falls flat. The role begs for the kind of oddball unpredictable behavior, posturing, and brilliance Feldman used in creating the character but unfortunately he’s just a bloke with an accent and funny makeup here. It’s a missed opportunity.

A dozen or so painted backdrops simulate the interior and exterior of Frankenstein’s mountaintop castle, an ocean liner, underground laboratory, Transylvania Town Hall, town square, and even a giant moon in the sky. Lighting designer Jean Yves-Tessier creates an impressive light show, particularly for the monster reanimation and brain transference scenes that employ some additional electrical magic and Brian Hseih’s accompanying sound effects add to the surprise.

You vant some fun at a big silly musical Halloween treat? You vant Young Frankenstein at the Norris. Ya.

September 23 – October 9, 2016
Palos Verdes Performing Arts 
The Norris Theatre
27570 Norris Center Drive (formerly Crossfield Drive)
Rolling Hills Estates, CA 90274

Pablo Rossil and Larry Raben

Tracy Lore and candlestick

Larry Raben and brain

Lindsey Alley and Pablo Rossil

Anne Montavan and Larry Raben

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