Tuesday, October 30, 2007

The Case of the Dueling Frankensteins

This season, Broadway audiences have two versions of the Frankenstein story to choose from. Both are musicals, and both ironically, star one of the famous Foster children, Hunter and Sutton. And while each production is an original interpretation or reinvention of Mary Shelley’s classic novel, I don’t think either lives up to the hype surrounding it.

First, let’s start with the Off-Broadway production of “Frankenstein,” which was developed as a “bold new theatrical experience.” I think they’ve since dropped that tagline, calling it simply a “musical” instead. (After all, “Bold” and “Experience” is a lot to live up to.) The first thing one notices is that the set is constructed of what looks like wrought iron and piping. It is very stark, black and unnervingly dull, a foreshadowing of how the rest of the evening will play out. For this musical is not your typical uplifting songfest, but rather a bleak, stripped down version of a book that “tells” us more than it “shows.” So in a sense, the actors are reading us the book rather than actually showing us anything that happens.

The dramatic highlight of such a show might be the moment where the monster first comes to life, seeing how the doctor achieved such a feat. But in this version, that pivotal moment is glossed over with little more than a song telling us it happened. (And don’t expect any great make-up on the Frankenstein monster, either. He looks more like a bald leather man you’d see at a local gay bar, his green pallor traded in for a shaved head and some fetching chaps.)

The color palette for the show is black and grey, with a little white thrown in to make sure we can see the actors. The lighting is stark, the sets are dark, the costumes are dull, and the music is tediously slow. I will never understand why a musical interpretation of a gothic novel means the songs must be slow and plodding as if the only thing people sang in centuries past were ballad songs and funeral dirges. I’m not saying a musical about a living monster has to be upbeat, but at least throw in a tune once in a while that will keep us awake. With the black set, black costumes, slow music and little action, the show offers little to keep audiences in their seats. (At the preview performance I attended, many people left at intermission, including myself.)

Am I being unfairly mean to the musical? After all, it’s Off-Broadway. You can’t expect it to have the lavish production values of its older, bigger sister. But you can expect it to be entertaining. Or at least riveting. And though the stage was filled with talented performers, Hunter Foster and Christiane Noll among them, they couldn’t rise above the dreariness of the production.

That leaves us with “Young Frankenstein,” Mel Brook’s big sparkling new musical adaptation of his classic movie. The show has generated a boatload of hype, as anything connected with Mr. Brooks tends to do, and is easily one of the most anticipated shows of the season. So I went to see it expecting to be blown away, or at least have an evening full of laughter. And that is, I’m sorry to say, what’s sadly missing from this huge Broadway extravaganza. While it’s undeniably a lot of fun to watch, it’s just not that funny.

The sets are amazing, the costumes are great, the actors are all very talented, and the show is guaranteed to be a huge hit. Especially with out-of-towners. But the classic lines we’ve heard so many times in the famous films tend to sound flat when delivered on stage. The audience still laughs, but it’s more out of obligation. After all, there is nothing subtle about this production. The actors try very hard to punch the lines, deliver the gags and keep the action moving. But with little heart underneath it, there are long sections where the show is actually rather dull. Even with all the high tech scenery and effects to distract us.

Roger Bart is fine as the lead, though at times he seems to be channeling Mario Cantone with his high pitched screeching. Everyone else in the cast is also very talented, and sometimes there are moments of sheer brilliance (the hay ride scene and “Putting on the Ritz” number are highlights of the show). But the overall effect is like eating cotton candy. There’s a lot of fluff to look at, but not much substance when you actually begin eating.

But that's just me. If you have a different opinion about either of these shows, feel free to share it.

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