By PAM HARBAUGH
No doubt, those who get that witty retort will be the first ones lining up for tickets for Surfside Playhouse’s new show opening tomorrow, “Young Frankenstein.”
For the uninitiated, know that the musical is by comic genius Mel Brooks. Its zany storyline revolves around a respectable neurosurgeon Dr. Frederick Frankenstein, who, in denying his questionable ancestry, insists on mispronouncing the last syllable of his family name. while teaching class one day a strange man gives the professor an offer he can’t refuse but he has to go to his family home to collect it. The doctor leaves his fussy fiancée (“taffeta!”) and heads to dreary Transyvlania, where, with the help of hunchbacked Igor, and sexy assistant Inga, creates a monster who comes alive…alive!
Like he did with his 1967 movie “The Producers,” Brooks took his 1974 movie “Young Frankenstein,” which he wrote with the late, great Gene Wilder, and turned it into a Broadway hit. And why not. The movie “Young Frankenstein” is loaded with one-liners, hysterical send-ups, classic visual asides and that running joke when mentioning the name “Frau Blucher.” Cue the horses.The movie has become such a classic that patrons may expect a carbon copy of it. But that is quite impossible, said Bergeron, because live theater can’t give those extreme close-ups like film can. Of course, the plot and characters and comic bits are well known via the movie. Will there be a shadow cast presentation one of these days? But this is live theater, which means adding steroids wherever possible.
“Translating those slow burns written into the script across the footlights is complicated,” said director Bryan Bergeron. “You have to do everything in broad theatrical style.”
That is the same challenge with the stage musical “The Producers,” which took the old Zero Mostel movie and turned it into a stage musical starring Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick as a pair of unlikely Broadway producers. That was such a smash hit it won a then record-breaking 12 Tony Awards and was to get tickets to it during its 6-year run.
While “Young Frankenstein” was nominated for both Tony and Drama Desk Awards, it didn’t win any. However, it did run a respectable 14 months on Broadway and then had a successful national tour. Additionally, it’s a popular choice for both regional and community theaters across the country.
Much of the musical’s popularity can be attributed to the film’s roster of over the top stereotype characters and one-liners and campy performances by big names including Gene Wilder, Madelyn Kahn, Mary Feldman, Cloris Leachman, Teri Garr, Kenneth Mars and Peter Boyle. Even the venerable Gene Hackman has a bit part in it.
Given all that star power and big character draw, it’s become a favorite among community actors, like Anthony DeTrano, who plays the title role.
“It was a show I was really excited about going out for,” DeTrano said. “We had done ‘The Producers’ two years ago and I played the Gene Wilder part in that as well, but there are never any guarantees. And this show could have been cast many different ways from the people that came out, without using me.”
Bergeron said the film is “riddled” with visual jokes actually written into the script. For a live production, his cast has worked long and hard on comic timing in order to “capture the laughs.”
One bit in particular that has taken extra effort is the mysterious bookcase which suddenly revolves, revealing a hidden staircase. In the film, the bookcase traps the professor in slapstick fashion. But that was possible because the film was speeded up in editing and was cut to show the professor being trapped.
But the bit has to be carefully executed on a live stage.
“They didn’t have the problems of the practicalities of making it work in real time,” Bergeron said. “That’s a heavy bookcase on a big turntable and injury would be really easy. So we have to time blocks and things to flip over so the bookcase will stop where it needs to. And, it takes three people (backstage) to turn it.”
Big physicality is required of Rhett Parnell, who plays Igor in the musical. Igor is the hunchback denizen who does Frankenstein’s bidding, including finding a brain to transplant.
“The Igor role is just a hoot,” he said. “I can’t pull off the bug-eyed enthusiasm of Marty Feldman in the movie. My Igor is a bit sub-human, like a scary chimpanzee…I get to jump around enthusiastically when the creature comes to life. I get my own wall of Frankenstein machinery and get to throw switches and turn dials.
“And I get a lot of funny lines. I’m having a grand time of it.”
Now a professional toy designer and children’s book illustrator, Parnell was once a professional actor living in New York City and touring the country performing in children’s shows. But he said he’s never worked physically as hard on stage as he is in the role of Igor.
“Igor’s on stage a lot, fetching brains. I’m all over the place. I’m losing a lot of weight doing this show. My doctor will be very pleased. I’m 49 and getting on a bit, so this kind of role is good cardio.”
And there are the songs, which require even more energy.
“Mel Brooks did a great balancing act with the movie and the musical,” Parnell said. “The whole point of songs in musicals is to go deeper in emotions and explore them. The comic depths are explored in this music.”
One of the characters who comes to life in the musical but not the movie is the original Dr. Frankenstein, played here by John Kurowski.
The character appears in a dream in the “Join the Family Business” song.
“Like the movie, (the musical) is very funny,” Kurowski said. “If someone is not familiar with the musical version, they may be surprised that the songs are very funny, creative and engaging. When I saw it on Broadway, I bought the soundtrack immediately.”
Audiences will walk out humming the tunes, said DeTrano.
“Bryan gave us instruction from the start, that we wanted to give the audience something different than a copy of the movie, but also an homage to not only ‘Young Frankenstein’ but to the old horror movies that itself is an homage to,” DeTrano said. “The challenge was how to present jokes that are so familiar and expected to an audience that had already heard them so many times. Thankfully, jokes on film play much differently on stage, but the humor is always there in the end.”
Parnell expects the show to be a big hit with Surfside audiences. So, he said, best get tickets now.
“We’ve got a good cast, great script, fun music, great crew,” Parnell said. “Everybody’s hearts and brains and spare parts are in it. And it’ll be a blast.”
SIDE O’ GRITS: YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN opens Friday (Nov. 2) and runs through Nov. 18 at Surfside Playhouse, 301 Ramp Road, Cocoa Beach. Tickets are $25 general and $22 military, students and seniors. Call 321-783-3127 or visit SurfsidePlayers.com.
This is an edited version of a story running Thursday in Melbourne Beachsider.