AISLE SAY San Francisco


Music and Lyrics by Mel Brooks
Book by Mel Brooks & Thomas Meehan
Directed by Patrick Klein
Presented by Palo Alto Players
Lucie Stern Theater
1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto, CA /(650) 329-0891

Reviewed by Judy Richter

Mel Brooks has a knack for converting his funny, successful movies into funny, successful musicals. "The Producers" came first, and then "Young Frankenstein," which is delighting Palo Alto Players audiences.

Director Patrick Klein has assembled an outstanding cast and artistic team who have all contributed to a polished, hilarious production.

Set in 1934, the book by Brooks and Thomas Meehan concerns a successful American brain surgeon, Dr. Frederick Frankenstein (Steven Ennis), who must travel to Transylvania to claim the estate of his late grandfather. When he arrives, he's greeted by his grandfather's humpbacked lab assistant, Igor (Joey McDaniel), and the comely Inga (Jessica Whittemore), who is to be his assistant, too. Also on hand is his grandfather's housekeeper-lover, Frau Blücher (Linda Piccone).

He says he wants nothing to do with his grandfather's work, which involved digging up dead bodies, implanting them with brains, and thus creating scary monsters that kept the villagers on edge.

Nevertheless, Frederick succumbs to the scientific lure, believing that if he implants a body with the brain of a brilliant, good person, the new creation also will be brilliant and good. Unfortunately, Igor mistakenly brings him an abnormal brain.

The resultant monster (Michael D. Reed) is a hulking, shuffling, inarticulate creature who gets loose and sends the village into a frenzy. As he crashes through the woods, he encounters Frederick's fiancee, Elizabeth (Lindsay Stark), who had never allowed Frederick to touch her. She had arrived unexpectedly and found Frederick and Inga in a compromising situation. When she meets the monster, his physical endowments lead to a mutually satisfying union.

There's more after that. Suffice it to say that the entire show is infused with Brooks' zany, frequently risque humor as well as tuneful music with clever lyrics. Musical theater fans will find some songs with subtle references to other Broadway hits like "South Pacific" in "(There Is Nothing Like) The Brain," "Annie" in "Together Again for the First Time" and "Fiddler on the Roof" in "Life, Life."

Then there's the direct use of an Irving Berlin hit, "Puttin' on the Ritz," that becomes a full-out, tap-dancing production number choreographed by Jennifer Gorgulho. Her work, so well executed by the ensemble and principals throughout the show, is inspired by the original Broadway director/choreographer, Susan Stroman.

Klein's director's notes say that when he saw the original Broadway production in 2007, he didn't think it could be done in a regional theater because it needs "specific actors with impeccable comic timing, giant sets and a million costumes. In short, it requires a giant budget."

Well, now the show is on a regional, nonprofessional stage without a huge budget, yet artistic creativity and an abundantly talented cast have allayed his concerns. Kuo-Hao Lo's simple yet evocative sets easily adapt to frequent scene changes. Lighting by Carolyn Foot and sound by Grant Huberty enhance the often eerie moods, while Shannon Maxham's costumes reflect both the era and the characters' personalities. Musical director Matthew Mattei leads the mostly satisfactory orchestra.

As Frederick, Ennis is seemingly indefatigable, singing, dancing and acting his way through this demanding role with nary a misstep. Whittemore's Inga is not only sexy but also multi-talented, as seen in the yodeling she does in "Roll in the Hay."

McDaniel's not-too-bright Igor is always amusing. And when it comes to comic timing, no one can beat Piccone as Frau Blücher. A longtime favorite of local theater, she can evoke peals of laughter from her silences and her expressive face, even when it's deadpan.

Reed as the monster meets the physical requirement with his imposing, NBA-like height along with some agile dancing and operatic vocal abilities seen in his later scenes. Stark as Elizabeth is an assured singer.

The men's and women's ensembles also are excellent as they sing, dance and portray all the extra characters needed in this show.

The two-act, nearly three-hour "Young Frankenstein" is an ambitious undertaking, but Palo Alto Players has surmounted its challenges to stage a thoroughly enjoyable evening of musical theater

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