Mel Brooks has a new play at the Hilton Theatre (formerly named the Ford Center for the Performing Arts, but renamed in 2005) on Broadway, based on his 1974 hit movie “Young Frankenstein.” The critics have not been as kind to the play as they were to the 1968 film, but, during a recent trip to New York City, the concierge suggested that the less-than-stellar reviews were unfair. She glowed on about the lighting (credit goes to Peter Kaczorowski, Lighting Designer), the songs, the humor, so I shelled out the money to watch Roger Bart (the scheming…now deceased…druggist on “Desperate Housewives”) portray Dr. Frederick Frankenstein.
It was well worth the time and my money.
Others in the cast with whom you might be familiar included Andrea Martin (SCTV) reprising the Cloris Leachman film role as Frau Blucher and Megan Mullally (“Elizabeth), who played the long-running role of Karen Walker on “Will & Grace” on television.
Most of us are familiar with Mary Shelley’s original masterpiece about man creating a monster, but when Mel Brooks brought it to the screen as a comedy parody in 1974, “Puttin’ on the Ritz” took on a whole new meaning. The late Peter Boyle (“Everybody Loves Ramon”) camped it up in the song-and-dance number in the seventies film, and, in the play adaptation Shuler Hensley plays “the monster” and gets to wear the top hat and tails. Most of the running bits from the movie (“PUT THE CANDLE BACK!”) are intact, as well.
Aside from Roger Bart, who is brilliant as Dr. Frankenstein (and is constantly correcting the pronunciation of his last name), Christopher Fitzgerald, who plays Igor, the hunchback, a role made famous by the late Marty Feldman, should be singled out for special praise.
All of the principal performers have great resumes, but Igor, he of the moving “hump,” is a stand-out. As Christopher Fitzgerald told James Sims, Senior Editor for “Broadway World” in Los Angeles (July, 2007) during a six-week Seattle out-of-town run, “Igor is certainly very clown-like. Kind of comments on the action, and has a lot of very bizarre non sequiturs, with a kind of higher status than anyone else in the show.”
In a different interview, Fitzgerald told an amusing story about getting the call to play Igor, while he was shooting a commercial dressed as a Cabbage Patch Kid and talking on his cell phone, with only the head removed. At first, there was talk of Fitzgerald playing Dr. Frankenstein and Roger Bart playing Igor, but it ended up this way, and it couldn’t be better. Fitzgerald has been working in this field for a long time and has a gift for physical comedy, much like Jim Carrey. “All of that stuff: that was my background growing up. A lot of vaudeville stuff traveling around New England doing those types of shows,” Fitzgerald told Sims in their July 2007, interview.
Fitzgerald is married to a working actress (Jessica Stone) and they have an infant born in July, just as the show was beginning its out-of-town runs (San Francisco, Seattle). Fitzgerald has also appeared in shows like “Twins” on the WB and the play “Wicked” (on Broadway), but this is definitely a move up in his career.
The lighting by Peter Kaczorowski is spectacular in the film, especially during the scene(s) where the Monster is created, and the huge set is awesome. [Even Fitzgerald commented on the massive set built for the production.] Dance numbers aplenty add to the merriment, and the play is as funny as the movie.
All of this hilarity springs from the fertile comedic brain of Mel Brooks (born Melvin Kaminsky, June 28, 1926) who is one of the few people, according to the International Movie Data Base, to have won an Oscar, an Emmy, a Grammy and a Tony. Brooks took his working name from his mother’s maiden name (Brookman) and, interestingly enough, in WWII was an infantryman in charge of defusing landmines in advance of the approaching army.
Brooks has had 12 wins and 17 nominations, including an Oscar for his 1968 screenplay of “The Producers.” “The Producers” went full circle: movie (1968) to play (2001) to movie, again (2005). The play morphed into a second (less successful) film with Broadway stars Nathan Lane, Matthew Broderick and Uma Thurman in 2005.
Brooks has often been hailed as a comic genius. He has so much comic material to mine that it’s hard to know what he might do next. “Blazing Saddles” (1974) was mentioned by name by the cast at the end of the play, as they took their bows, as the next property that will become a play, but Brooks is famous for promising sequels and not always delivering— a sort of “crowd teaser.”
“Blazing Saddles,” “Young Frankenstein” (1974, for each), “High Anxiety” (1977), “The Producers (1968)…these are but a few of the potential properties that could become successful plays for Mel Brooks, or already have.
The tickets for the play were not cheap, but the $400 that was being touted in Seattle runs was high, and only for those orchestra seats right down front. A ticket can be had for under $150. Still steep, but much better than the first figure mentioned.
Mel Brooks won three Emmys (1997 to 1999) playing “Uncle Phil” on the television series “Mad About You” and has won 3 Tonys and 3 Grammys (one for a spoken version of “The History of the World: Party II.”)
If the lavish production numbers, the low (but hilarious) humor and the fine acting of this production remain the standard, Brooks’ plays should do well on Broadway for a long, long time.