Monday, October 21, 2013

Monsters in the Grove

Zachary Centers as Igor.

By Tina Arth and Darrell Baker

A darkened stage – lights come up on two giant (dare we say “magnificent”) knockers at Theatre in the Grove’s Halloween extravaganza, The New Mel Brooks Musical Young Frankenstein. The locale (New Transylvania) and iconic characters (drawn from the brilliantly written and cast original movie Young Frankenstein) are a natural for an audience seeking live theater in the spooky season.

For those readers not familiar with the classic monster movie genre, a little background is in order. From 1930 to 1946, Universal Pictures released a series of movies that came to define the American public’s view of monsters – Frankenstein, Bride of Frankenstein, The Wolfman, The Mummy, Dracula, and many more. In 1974, Mel Brooks and Gene Wilder co-authored Young Frankenstein, a loving parody of pretty much every black and white monster movie Universal Pictures ever made. The film starred Gene Wilder, Madeline Kahn, Marty Feldman, Peter Boyle, Teri Garr, Cloris Leachman, Kenneth Mars – truly, a galaxy of the finest film comedians – leaving many big shoes to fill. In 2004, Mel Brooks (notably, without Gene Wilder) turned the movie into a Big Broadway Musical, chock full of huge production numbers, derivative songs, and (happily) lots of the best shtick from the movie.

The TITG production, while ragged in some of the large ensemble numbers, does a generally magnificent job of filling many of the “biggest shoes” from the movie cast. Stevo Clay, in particular, positively channels Gene Wilder’s portrayal of Victor Frankenstein, without sacrificing the small touches that make the part his own. He slips smoothly from the supercilious nerd professor (Dr. “Fronkensteen”) to a hysterical pudding of a man, and ultimately to the confident and triumphant Dr. Frankenstein, and loses none of the comic genius of the original movie role. Jodi Coffman also draws heavily on Madeline Kahn’s portrayal of Victor’s fiancée, Elizabeth Benning. Her “don’t touch me” attitude is conveyed quite effectively, and does not require the “Please Don’t Touch Me” production number to express her character. Coffman particularly sparkles in the love scene with the monster, Ron Hansen, and the song “Deep Love” is one of the few musical numbers that really adds anything to the production.

Ron Hansen gives the surprise standout performance of the evening. Once the monster becomes somewhat sentient, his expressive eyes and mouth seem to take on a life of their own, the intelligence and humor belying the rotting green flesh of his face. Carly Wasserstein, as the sexy lab assistant Inga, is playfully seductive and yodels like a pro (who DOES that?). She also maintains her German accent with greater precision than any of the other characters, cementing a lovely performance.

The multi-talented Centers clan (Zachary as Igor, Pruella as Frau Blucher) contribute many of the evening’s funniest moments; they are the bearers of two of the show’s most beloved running gags (“What Hump?” and the recurrent neighing of the horses whenever they hear the words “Frau Blucher”). As with the earlier “Please Don’t Touch Me,” the production number “He Vas My Boyfriend” is unnecessary – the original line is funniest when first uttered by Frau Blucher, and should have been allowed to stand alone.

The set is somewhat Spartan at first, but the laboratory scenes are a real highlight – lots of ‘30s style high-tech equipment with flashing lights and a perfectly weighted rising platform that nicely reproduces both the Universal sets and the Young Frankenstein parody. It would have been nice to have had the hut scene with the Hermit centered on the stage so that the entire audience could fully appreciate the delicate dance with hot soup.

While by no means a perfect show, TITG’s Young Frankenstein is a great way to spend a pre-Halloween evening laughing with fellow monster fans. Because of mature themes and language, it is not appropriate for younger children.

The New Mel Brooks Musical Young Frankenstein runs through November 3 at Theatre in the Grove, 2028 Pacific Avenue, Forest Grove. Performance are at 7:30 pm October 25, 26, 31 and November 1, 2; 2:30 matinees are offered October 20 and 27.

Stevo Clay (right) as Frederick.

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