Mel Brooks recently predicted how London critics would react to this musical version of his 1974 horror-movie spoof: “They’ll say it’s good but it’s not as great as The Producers.” Well for this critic it’s every bit as good as, if not better than, its predecessor in that it piles on the gags even more relentlessly and wittily parodies musicals past and present. It offers an evening of gloriously impure fun.
The book, by Brooks himself and the late Thomas Meehan, sticks closely to the format of the movie. Frederick Frankenstein is an American professor of neurology lured back to Transylvania to sell off his grandfather’s rambling Gothic pile. Once he arrives, several things tempt him to stay. One is the brio of his yodelling assistant, Inga, who in the course of a wagon-ride to the castle reveals a remarkable capacity to fork hay (“I’m a very hard forker,” she announces). Even more tempting is the prospect of repeating his grandfather’s experiment of reanimating dead tissue and implanting a new brain in the body of a giant corpse. Thus is the Monster reborn.
The musical is, in part, a send-up of the original 1931 James Whale Frankenstein movie. It is even more, however, a love letter to the rackety world of American vaudeville. Frederick and his dorsally-challenged sidekick, Igor, launch into a front-cloth dance-routine at first sight. This is also a world where there are no pathetic phalluses – recalling the athletic prowess of Frederick’s grandfather, his ex-lover claims: “He won the three-legged race all by himself.” Best of all is a sequence where the Monster seeks refuge with a blind hermit who serves him warm soup, hot noodles and wine with staggeringly ill-directed aim: it is a variation on the trembling-waiter gag last seen in One Man, Two Guvnors and just as funny.
Like The Producers, the show puts a bonfire under the accepted canons of good taste. But, as both composer and lyricist, Brooks offers a sophisticated pastiche of stock musical forms. Lesley Joseph, as the superannuated lover of the original doctor, launches into a song, He Vas My Boyfriend, that instantly evokes Cabaret, even down to the way she nonchalantly drags a chair behind her. When Frederick’s discarded fiancee sings Deep Love we hear the plangent refrains of a Lloyd Webber number being mocked. In a sequence that is almost as outrageous as Springtime for Hitler, the transmogrified Monster leads a tap-dancing chorus in Puttin’ on the Ritz.
Susan Stroman, as director and choreographer, orchestrates the extravaganza perfectly and Beowulf Boritt’s designs have just the right antiquarian oddity. The cast is also good enough to banish memories of the movie prototypes. Hadley Fraser as Frederick avoids crazed-scientist shtick to give us a credible portrait of a prof driven by the lust for experiments and experiments with lust. Ross Noble is both funny and touching as the faithful Igor, Summer Strallen lights up the stage as the incandescent Inga, Dianne Pilkington is suitably arch as Frederick’s untouchable fiancee and Shuler Hensley, the sole survivor of the original 2007 Broadway production, as the Monster inescapably gains our sympathy.
This may not be a show for sensitive souls whose idea of a jolly evening is sitting at home reading Walter Pater. For the rest of us, who cherish popular theatre’s roots in laughter and song, it offers two-and-a-half hours of time-suspending pleasure and shows that the 91-year-old Brooks, present on the first night, remains a bawdily parodic Peter Pan.