Talk about reanimating the dead. US comedy legend Mel Brooks’ classic 1974 spoof film Young Frankenstein had been gathering dust for 33 years until it popped up again as a Broadway musical in 2007. That production, directed by Susan Stroman, didn’t get the reception it was after, but still chalked up nearly 500 performances despite its astronomical ticket pricing.
Now it’s alive again, 10 years later. After a pre-London run in Newcastle this year, Brooks’ show, again directed by Stroman, lurches its way into the West End, running at the Garrick until February.
It stars Hadley Fraser as Frederick Frankenstein (it’s pronounced “Fronkensteen”), American grandson of Shelley’s Victor, who’s drawn to recreating the iffy science experiments of his ancestor. A starry cast, including Ross Noble, Summer Strallen, Dianne Pilkington and Lesley Joseph, ham it up as various idiosyncratic Transylvanians.
But does Stroman’s cast spark life into Brooks’ satirical, 1970s story, or is it left dead as a doornail? Does this West End version live under the shadow of Brooks’ much-loved 1974 original, or can it escape the film’s clutching grasp? Does this monster mash catch on in a flash with London’s critics, or are they left as cold as their US counterparts?
Fergus Morgan rounds up the reviews.
Young Frankenstein – Fright Night
Brooks and Stroman have collaborated before – on the phenomenally succesful musical adaptation of Brooks’ 1967 film The Producers. Do they have another hit on their hands here?
Some think they do: “It’s every bit as good as, if not better than, its predecessor in that it piles on the gags even more relentlessly and wittily parodies musicals past and present,” writes Michael Billington (Guardian, ★★★★★ ). “It offers an evening of gloriously impure fun.”
He’s not alone. Although admitting that “it doesn’t reach the same zenith of inspired zaniness as The Producers,” Dominic Cavendish (Telegraph, ★★★★ ) says it’s still “very silly and entirely welcome”, while Henry Hitchings (Evening Standard, ★★★★ ) confesses that “it’s hard not to succumb to the infectious daftness of this escapist crowd-pleaser.”
For Ann Treneman (Times, ★★★★ ) it’s “a hoot, not to mention a howl”, for Paul Taylor (Independent, ★★★★ ) it’s a “signal success” that’s “deliriously silly and shameless from start to finish”, for Tony Peters (Radio Times, ★★★★★ ), it’s a “bawdy, uproarious belly laugh” that “delivers in spades”, and for Alun Hood (What’s On Stage, ★★★★★ ) it’s “a wonderful night out, frequently reaching that all too rare comic plateau where it becomes literally impossible to stop laughing”.
Others, though, are less keen. “For every catchy song, there’s one pulled from the jar marked ‘filler’,” writes Natasha Tripney (The Stage, ★★ ). “For every joke that hits its mark, there’s one that would have got a slow clap from a Catskills crowd”.
“The further you are from remembering the 1940s, the slimmer the chances you’ll get the jokes. What might have once passed as light smut feels a bit gauche, a bit sordid, too,” Alice Saville
“The Brooks school of humour, all Borscht Belt mugging and bawdy innuendo, already felt pretty dated when the movie was released over 40 years ago,” concurs Stephen Dalton (Hollywood Reporter ). “In 2017, breast-ogling scientists and ditzy blonde nymphomaniacs are harder to excuse, as are the casual jokes about spousal abuse and sexual assault.”
“The way the show treats women cannot be overlooked,” Tripney adds. “It contributes to a culture in which men in positions of power, movie producers say, can treat women like they exist solely for their titillation and amusement. It’s damaging – and it’s just not funny anymore.”
Young Frankenstein – Mel’s monsters
Part of the reason for the widespread cherishment of the 1974 film is down to the central performance from the late Gene Wilder, and to the comedic chemistry he had with Marty Feldman’s hunchbacked manservant Igor. Can Fraser and Noble live up to such legends?
Again, most think they’re worthy of filling such shoes. “Fraser’s madly beaming Frankenstein and Geordie comic Noble as Igor, his hunchbacked sidekick, form a sensational, strenuously hard-working double-act,” lauds Cavendish. “They won’t – can’t – eclipse the memories for fans of Wilder and Feldman, but the shadows of those dearly departed stars don’t loom intrusively large either.”
Fraser is “wild-eyed and tirelessly exuberant”, according to Hitchings, supplies a “sensational display of deadpan humour and timing” according to Mark Shenton (London Theatre, ★★★★★ ) and has a “wonderful dynamism” according to Taylor, “perfectly gauging the balance between near-hysteria and unforced comic charm”. “He has no right to be so charismatic while wearing such a dodgy wig and moustache,” writes Marianka Swain (Broadway World, ★★★★ ).
“Noble has perhaps the more difficult task, but succeeds magnificently,” reports Hood. “Bent double for most of the show, the comedian brings all his eccentric, dark-hued comic flair, slightly alarming brand of bonhomie and a surprisingly fine singing voice to the impish sidekick with the inconsistent hump, and the result is an entrancing musical debut.”
There’s plenty more where that came from. For Swain, Noble “brings hilarious, hunched physicality in spades”, for Hitchings he provides “his trademark wackiness and a surprising athleticism to the part”, for Libby Purves (TheatreCat, ★★★★ ) he has “just the right manic edge”, and for Cavendish, he is “a revelation, courting physical injury by continually contorting himself inside his black cape, his moon-face combining low-level cunning with lobotomised gormlessness”.
There’s praise for the whole ensemble, in fact: “A cast this good could probably light up any show,” observes Saville. “Here, they’re like dynamite in a party popper.”
Young Frankenstein – the monster mash
It’s a risk, adapting a classic movie for theatre. As Cavendish points out: “There’s no easy way of bringing the aura of the silver screen to the stage: you can’t do close-ups in a playhouse.”
How well does Stroman’s direction deal with such trickiness? “Stroman, as director and choreographer, orchestrates the extravaganza perfectly,” reckons Billington, “and Beowulf Boritt’s designs have just the right antiquarian oddity.”
“Where the 1974 movie harks back to a bygone age of black-and-white horror films, this stage production draws on Vaudevillian tropes including painted backdrops, terrible dad jokes and an all-out tap routine that reminded me quite how much I enjoy an all-out tap routine,” describes Swain. “Stroman’s direction keeps it all rattling along such that there’s simply no time to be bored.”
There’s particular love for the Monster’s Puttin’ on the Ritz tap routine, a scene from the movie that’s been expanded here into a full-blown kick-line dance. It’s a moment that Billington finds “outrageous”, that Cavendish finds “hilarious”, and that Hood reports as being “greeted with theatre-shaking roars of approval”.
Elsewhere, though, critics are less impressed, Dalton lamenting “an oddly cheap-looking production that relies heavily on old-school painted backdrops, underwhelming props and sketchy prosthetic effects” and Saville finding direction that’s “ruthlessly efficient but does little to modernise this hopelessly dated, thinly plotted show”.
Young Frankenstein – is it any good?
Apparently so, if you believe most of the critics. Five-star reviews from the Guardian, WhatsOnStage, London Theatre and the Radio Times are accompanied by four-star write-ups from the Telegraph, the Independent, the Times and more. The show is a hilarious romp from start to finish, and a well-acted, affectionate tribute to a classic film, they say.
There are murmurs of disapproval elsewhere, though, of dated material, uncomfortable depictions of women, and jokes and songs that don’t resonate with anyone who’s not already a fan. It’s a hit, that’s for sure, but not in everyone’s eyes.