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“Young Frankenstein” the musical, Wharton Center East Lansing (Review) February 7, 2010

Posted by ronannarbor in Entertainment, musical theater.
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It is what it is, and that is all that it is. Funny and entertaining, Mel Brooks’ musical adaptation of his own movie of Young Frankenstein is now playing at the Wharton Center in East Lansing — and if you missed it here (it closes Sunday evening) it rolls into the Detroit Opera House in a couple weeks with the same cast.

The show is nothing if not funny — the script is virtually intact from the movie, with more added to fill out the evening’s bawdiness. The audience just ate up the jokes, including those hidden in the clever lyrics. In places, Brooks has taken his own movie dialogue and incorporated it intact into the lyrics themselves. I didn’t get a chance to see this in New York, but I get the feeling this tour is pretty close to what audiences saw there.

Roger Bart (Frankenstein — pronounced Franken-shteen) and Shuler Hensley (The Monster) reprise their Broadway roles, and that is a major boon to this tour. I have never been a huge Roger Bart fan, finding his squirming and mugging off-putting; but Shuler Hensley is just terrific here. The “Puttin’ on the Ritz” second act number is the true show-stopper it is intended to be. But if you’re looking for other hummable tunes, you’re not going to find them here (with the possible exception of Frau Blucher’s “He Was My Boyfriend” — the all-around funniest moment in the show.)

While the entire cast of the tour is strong, I particularly liked Cory English (Igor); Joanna Glushak (Frau Blucher); and Anne Horak (Inga).

There were some sound problems throughout the evening at the Wharton Center — mic cues were late, and some garbled. Those types of problems will be less apparent in Detroit where the show settles in for a longer run and those types of technical issues can be better compensated for.

Overall — I admit I had fun, but that’s about it. I wasn’t blown away by the show; I wasn’t blown away by the sets or costumes or performances. I wasn’t blown away by the script, lyrics, or score. I loved the two numbers mentioned above. Everything about this production is professional and well-done. So why wasn’t this the best thing since the invention of the zip code?

First, your enjoyment of this show will go hand in hand with your enjoyment of slapstick, borscht-belt humor, and broad bawdy jokes. Similar in style and direction to The Producers, Brook’s critics-wowing audience-alienating mega-award winning hit, it’s like a Bialystock and Bloom production come to full colorful life. I didn’t like The Producers, although I was equally awed by the talent on display both performance-wise and art direction wise. So consider this more of the same…but different…but not different enough.

Second, your enjoyment of this show will go hand in hand with your tolerance-level for Roger Bart. If hand-swinging, face-grimacing, all-out mugging, squeaking, and voice inflection humor are your thing, add another star to the review.

Finally, your enjoyment of this show will go hand in hand with your love of the original Mel Brooks movie. Filmed in black and white with the incomparable Gene Wilder, Terri Garr, Madeline Kahn, Peter Boyle, Marty Feldman, and Cloris Leechman the movie is considered by many to be Mel Brooks at his absolute best. Adding music to the mix really does nothing more than make one long to run home and watch the movie again (which I did this morning).

You’ve surely already decided if you are going to go see the show or not — so go, have fun, and laugh. It’s cold outside, a good laugh is always welcome. But if you are a true musical theatre lover, you might not find the show as amusing as you would hope. Frankly, I had much more fun at the hilarious “The Addams Family musical” in Chicago a few months ago.

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Superb cast salvages “The Producers” at Croswell Opera House June 22, 2009

Posted by ronannarbor in Entertainment, Theatre.
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First — there are huge fans of Mel Brooks’ musical THE PRODUCERS, and there are those who are not (me) 12 Tonys notwithstanding (I voted for “The Full Monty”). It’s an actor’s dream to perform these roles — its another task entirely to sit for three hours in an audience being inundated with mean-spiritedness.

The Producers is an example of a show that worked so well on Broadway with its primarily NYC-based audiences; and a show that faltered in its national tour, and eventually closed when NYC audiences dissipated and it needed to rely on tourists, who didn’t find it as funny nor as entertaining as the apparently more-informed NYC audiences did. It also relied on the star power of Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick — two performances permanently burned into the retinas of audience goers for these roles.

That being said — the cast at Croswell Opera House is as superb as you can expect in an amateur production of the show. Steve Antalek is a fine Max Bialystock, and Patrick Toth a fine Leo Bloom (even if he is 15 years too young for the role). Lucy Hagedorn shines as Ulla, and Jim Craig is a funny Roger DeBris. Special kudos to Jesse Montie who has a pitch-perfect interpretation of Carmen Ghia, and Stephen Smith’s athletic Franz (another actor who is at least 20 years too young for the part).

There is also more good: the orchestra sounds wonderful under the direction of Jonathan Sills, and the costumes by Susan Eversden are literally stunning.

But then there is the bad: the sound is spotty with several mic problems during the course of the performance – but more importantly, some totally missing mic-work — solo lines are inaudible in the house; important lines in songs disappear; and when the ensemble sings one primarily hears only the leads who are on body mics. The opening number is a cacophony of mumbo-jumbo that even those of us who know every word of this show had a hard time making out. “We wanted to stand up and hiss….we’ve seen shit, but never like this” was completely unintelligible, and it’s one of the funniest lines in the show.

The choreography is lacking. “I want to be a producer” is sloppy and poorly choreographed. The taps can not be heard through most of the number, and this is the one place in the show where clean, efficient tapping is required. It’s not the girls fault — they do what they can with a mess of tap steps that do nothing to emphasize the rhythm of the song nor to build to any type of climax. Time steps and shuffles alone do not make for a Broadway tap number. “Springtime for Hitler” is inherently funny — the choreography in this production does nothing to build the number to what it could be; and at times seems to work against it by forcing motions into space that doesn’t fit. The swastika-dance looks great on a big stage when a mirror can be flown in to show the “Busby Berkley” effect of the swastika rotating on stage…here, it just looks like messy marching.

Then there is the ugly: the set design. This is just plain old gawd-awful. It ranges from serviceable (Roger’s apartment) to Junior-High quality (the scenes outside the theatre; and the “Springtime for Hitler” sign that flies in at the end of Act I — which is so awful that Junior High quality might be giving it too much credit.) The paint is not thick enough on the canvas drops, and light shines through from behind (a problem that plagued last year’s A CHRISTMAS CAROL at the Croswell also). The lettering throughout is sloppy and unprofessional. The lettering for the Whitehall and Marks backdrop looks like a high school cheerleading sign hanging in a hallway. The set design is cringe-inducing in it’s awfulness. Even the better pieces have problems — Roger’s apartment doesn’t fit together well on stage (or they missed their marks during the Sunday afternoon performance that I saw) and the lovely Little Old Ladyland heart is fronted by a poorly painted sloppy looking bench.

Therein lies the crux of the matter — The Producers, despite spoofing the “worst show ever” can’t LOOK like the worst show ever. It’s a budget-squashing show that is far more expensive than it looks in the finished product, and it is exactly because of that budget that the show works in professional venues.

What Croswell has is a fine ensemble cast that is stunningly costumed standing in a shell of a set — and it doesn’t work that way. Sloppy graphics and lettering, poorly painted drops, and slow-moving scene changes undo the effort that the cast has put into this show.

I laughed. I know the show inside and out. Everything that worked in this show worked because of the fine and funny script, the great singing voices, and the fine direction of Mark DePietro whose sense of timing, comedy, and efficient stage-work is clearly seen throughout the show. I wish I could say more positive things about the show, but I can’t.  Perhaps my expectations of the Croswell have become too high over the years — but they SHOULD be that high — this is the best Summer Stock in the region.

For the record, Croswell is the only non-professional theatre where I would personally audition for a show. My heart is in directing and choreography, not in performance. But I respect certain directors and some specific shows. I was in last year’s Croswell production of Titanic, the Musical, because it is one of my favorite shows. I was indeed cast in this production of The Producers, but chose not to participate for personal reasons. I look forward to auditioning at Croswell again if the right combination of show and director comes along down the road and my schedule permits. I am also a supporting member of the Croswell Opera House.

There are a slew of other productions of THE PRODUCERS slated for local venues, including one in Ann Arbor this fall. Word of warning to all of them — this is going to be the most expensive musical you have ever produced, and if you don’t have the money to spend, tread carefully.