AISLE SAY New York
Music by Mark Baron
Book and Lyrics by Jeffrey Jackson
Original Story Adaptation by Gary P. Cohen
Based on the novel by Mary Shelley
Directed by Bill Fennelly
Starring Hunter Foster, Christiane Noll
and Steve Blanchard as the Creature
37 Arts Theatre / 450 West 37th Street / (212) 307-4100
Reviewed by David Spencer
In the limited universe that encompasses what I write and teach for a living, nothing is sadder than a musical which is a wasted opportunity.
It's easy to snipe at Frankenstein for its Euro-musical, nearly sung-through pretensions, and the blandly over-wrought delivery in both book and score; but added to the creative team credits is this curious one for "original story adaptation" (Gary P. Cohen), which I take to mean the function of delivering a skeletal outline (perhaps Mr. Cohen was replaced as librettist early in the process?). And in that, the show seems to have had some spark of promise.
For the barebones structure cuts to the chase admirably, eschews the B-movie oversimplification we've all been conditioned to associate with the title (that Mel Brooks is parodying a mere five blocks up- and three more cross-town), embraces some of Mary Shelley's original philosophical concepts (especially in its portrait of an articulate, thinking Creature), and its outline is admirably compact, for all it covers. Even better, the set is a minimalist one with levels and projections, not quite a black box, but nearly so, in the sense that it engages the audience's imagination in filling out scenic details and making quick transitions from one scene to the next.
Unfortunately, as indicated, the team hanging flesh on those bare bones is emulating the bombast of Euro imports without either the distinctiveness of imprimatur that distinguishes Webber-whoever and Boulblil-Schoenberg from the sorryass pack, nor the basic craftsmanship that marks rudimentary songwriting craftsmanship, lack of perfect rhyme for one. In a pop-novelty score, such as the one for Spring Awakening, there's ultimately no point in splitting hairs over this, because of its assiduous objective of capturing the gestalt of today's youth in a musical vocabulary authentic to it—and because it is, again, a novelty: not a "true" musical, but an event with its own gestalt of renegade components working in an odd tandem in a way that can never be replicated or emulated successfully.
But Frankenstein means to be traditional, in the sense of telling a straight ahead story about a driven, larger-than-life hero—and in this case a hero who creates a life even larger than his. It cries out for first class musical theatre writing to make the characters interesting and the drama moving...because as outlined here, it might indeed be terribly moving.
The trick, though, would be to take characters who have become well-defined archetypes—the glory-seeking scientist who has "gone too far," the priest who urges him not to "play God," the woman who loves him but senses darkness within the secret he won't reveal, the Creature unjustly persecuted and responding in kind—and giving them genuine personality, layered motivation, senses of humor and irony, some genuine joy to highlight and make deeper the coming tragedy. Alas, the oversimplistic writing of lyricist-librettist Jeffrey Jackson and composer Mark Baron keeps the archetypes flatly two-dimensional.
The result of this is a cast that has to, as a performer friend of mine put it, "over-commit" to sell the material, such that there is almost always a histrionic level. This is mitigated somewhat in the performance of Steve Blanchard as the creature, who has managed to find a lurching physicality and a sense of core biological dysfunction that conveys a roiling anger; and mitigated miraculously in the uncommonly still, grounded performance of Eric Michael Gillett as Frankenstein's proud and tolerant father; a simple stroke of humanity that puts the lack of anything similar elsewhere into the harshest relief. But all others, including Hunter Foster as the tortured doctor and Christiane Noll as his wary, wondering wife, can do little more than flail impressively.
In the end, all this makes for an evening that cries, thumps and insists upon its own power—yet song after song, moment after moment, yields the mildest obligatory applause.
What a waste. What a painful, criminal waste...