The following review is based on the Saturday, September 17th opening night performance when Gregory North played Inspector Kemp and the Hermit in place of the injured Joe Hart.
When audiences arrive to the La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts, they will be greeted with a sign cautioning that the production of Young Frankenstein, the musical, is intended for “mature audiences with a sense of humor.” This forewarning becomes an exhilarating foreshadowing for those with the keen knowing that this is a work to be judged on its own merits, matching the disposition of the era it was originally written in (i.e., the Gene Wilder-starring film). This open-minded approach to experiencing the source material by Mel Brooks and Thomas Meehan, with music and lyrics by Brooks, will likely lend itself to the most riveting time one will have at the theatre in years. With witty double-entendres galore, hysterical running gags, a gaggle of immersive set pieces, and a cast that goes beyond the ingenious script and score, this rendition of Young Frankenstein — based on the reworked 2017 West End version — is certain to elicit “screams of delight” through October 9th.
While the McCoy Rigby Entertainment-produced Young Frankenstein retains some of its original direction and choreography by Susan Stroman, the directorial efforts by Jeff Whiting and chorographical touches by James Gray are equally on display. From one scene to the next — abutted by preternatural transitions — the show moves at an enthrallingly breakneck pace, melding its riotously slapstick dialogue with moments that highlight the performers’ elite talent — and it seamlessly does all of this despite a multitude of moving parts that would weigh down any lesser production.
The eminently ghoulish premise, quite apropos for the season, involves Dr. Frederick Frankenstein (pronounced “Fronkensteen”), the grandson of the notorious Dr. Victor Frankenstein, who hesitantly parts ways with his fiancée Elizabeth (albeit temporarily) to inherit his grandfather’s controversial estate in Transylvania. History, then, threatens to repeat itself when Frederick — joined by his eager manservant, the hump-backed Igor, his new lab assistant Inga, and housekeeper Frau Blücher — seeks to reanimate a 7-foot corpse to the dismay of the trepidatious villagers, who know all too well what’s coming again.
Leading the cast is A.J. Holmes who reprises the role of Dr. Frederick Frankenstein since last playing him eleven years ago in a national tour. Holmes, who has a brilliant knack for comedy — which he also demonstrated as Elder Cunningham in The Book of Mormon for five-and-a-half years — makes it all look so effortless. Sporting a verifiably real mustache and mischievous smile, Holmes makes an immediate impression upon delineating between “reflexes and voluntary impulses” in the opening scene while rattling off medical terms, with flawless diction, in “The Brain.” (Also worth noting is Ryan Perry Marks, who sidesplittingly portrays one of Dr. Frankenstein’s medical students, the alliteratively named Bertram Batram, and a highly spirited villager.) Holmes’s Frankenstein is ceaselessly energetic, and particularly flourishes because he has exceptional chemistry with the other principals and, not to mention, can tap-dance and ring out powerful notes with the best of them.
Even though her character loses one in Act II, Sarah Wolter fills the shoes of Frankenstein’s betrothed Elizabeth wonderfully. Elizabeth, who assuredly flounces in a red dress and mink stole, offers new meaning to the “women are a mystery” saying. To this end, Wolter expertly inflects her voice and uses non-verbal cues to emote a committed, non-committal physical affection for her onstage romantic counterpart in the crowd-pleasing “Please Don’t Touch Me” before having a peculiarly risible bodily response to the Monster several plot points later. Suffice it to say, Wolter is not afraid to push the envelope, and her risks pay off to the tune of some of the musical’s biggest laughs.
Wesley Slade, who came out all the way from Orlando, FL, to realize his dream role, gives a marvelous performance as the comically complaisant and cloaked Igor. Watching Slade contort his body, shuffle sideways, and warp his expressions is like beholding a comedic actor at the apex of his craft. For example, Slade’s everlastingly aghast countenance — mirrored by Holmes’s Frankenstein when the odd pair first meet outside the estate — has the audience in stitches right away. This is then surpassed with Slade uproariously communicating Igor’s confusion merely with gestures when Frankenstein not-so-modestly reveals he was a member of the Whiffenpoofs at Yale – the curious name of the university’s male acapella group. Plus, Slade’s timing on a running gag involving Igor’s hump is superbly delivered each time, as are other astonishing characterizations denoting an uncontrollable nervousness, and a feral reaction, at the sight of the brought-to-life Monster and Elizabeth’s mink accessory, respectively. Adding to the believability of the characters’ interplay is how realistic Erika Senase and Maggie Hofmann’s costumes appear.
Maggie Ek is Inga, replete with her charming Transylvanian accent in tow. Having the appearance of a ballerina, but the tongue-in-cheek instincts of Zsa Zsa Gabor, Ek admirably balances sultry suggestions with the satirical. Ek’s interpretation transcends the usual dim-wittedness of the character; here, Inga wins the audience’s appreciation by also being honest and unimpeachably passionate. And, more so than just relying on laughs — which she, case in point, provokes in a sublime gag with Holmes’s Frankenstein when trying to negotiate a hidden passageway in a bookcase — Ek evokes oohs and aahs with crystal-clear vocal chops and an incredible yodel.
From a casting standpoint, the most notable draw for prospective attendees is the celebrated Sally Struthers of All in the Family as Frau Blücher, a name so bestially guttural in tone that it prompts two horses (pay attention to their names!) on the Frankenstein estate to neigh every time — a joke that never fails. Audiences will quickly discover that the inscrutable Blücher is more than just a housekeeper; she is highly excitable, powered by an astronomical libido that has a life of its own, specifically showcased in a recollection of when she was the girlfriend of Victor Frankenstein in the show-stopping “He Vas My Boyfriend.” Struthers’s depiction is everything fans can hope for, and more, as it combines the shocking with the sincere, leading up to crescendos of feverish guffaws. At only 5’ 1”, Struthers has a commanding presence, inviting us to revel in the ribaldry of her eccentric persona, whose quirky accent, interpretations, and pronunciation of words (i.e., “without further a doo-doo”) yield endless howls.
The Monster is given its just due thanks to Trent Mills, who coincidentally played another gargantuan green man in Shrek. With a gruesomely “zippered” head (a credit to makeup designer Kaitlin Yagen), the Monster is revivified on an operating table connected to a pulley that culminates with awesome pyro (designed by Eric S. Elias). As the Monster imposingly totters around town, capable of only growls in lieu of words, he then becomes Transylvania’s main attraction during the hugely anticipated “Puttin’ on the Ritz,” inclusive of a dance duel with a shadow. The number underscores Mills’s dancing, the cane-wielding and top hat-wearing ensemble, and beautiful color gradients along the stage — proof of Jared A. Sayeg’s proficiency as a lighting guru.
Additionally, Mills shines brightly in a scene with Gregory North, who portrays Harold, the blind and lonely Hermit. The Hermit’s existence does not further the premise, but that doesn’t change the fact that, when his exhortations are finally answered, the proceedings that follow comprise a rollicking sketch comedy of errors, to the chagrin of the Monster. North, furthermore, conveys his versatility as a performer given that he doubles as Inspector Kemp, who is memorable for his mechanical limbs and endearing zaniness.
Last, but not least, notwithstanding their short time on stage are Grant Hodges, Carl Draper, Austin Schulte, and Rodrigo Varandas who earn boisterous applause for their sweet-sounding, impeccably executed four-part harmonies as the Transylvania Quartet.
Overall, it’s rare when all the elements weave together as naturally as they do in La Mirada Theatre’s take on Young Frankenstein. From the prepossessing presentation to the magnetic performers, and the hilarity that organically builds upon itself, this show is guaranteed to make a long-lasting impression on those who do themselves a favor and see it — and that goes for anyone within a 200-mile radius, including its 96-year-old creator Mel Brooks. The replay value, too, for those who go a second or third time is worthwhile given the myriad subtleties to be uncovered with each subsequent viewing. It’s not a monstrous overreach to claim that this production can not only stand toe-to-toe with Broadway staples and national tours, but that it probably bests most of them.
For more information about La Mirada Theatre’s production of Young Frankenstein, and to purchase tickets, please visit lamiradatheatre.com