You may ask, “What does today’s generation of teens know about whip-cracking, vaudevillian humor, 1930s horror films and a dash of Catskills circuit silliness?” If you saw Malibu High School’s production of “Young Frankenstein” over the weekend, you’d say plenty.
The musical, an adaptation by master comedian Mel Brooks from his own 1974 comedy by the same name, uses the same collaborators and production team of his earlier classic comedy “The Producers.” The MHS team jumped all over the Borscht Belt schtick one would expect from Brooks, a comedic mastermind who cut his teeth writing with American entertainment icons like Sid Caesar, Carl Reiner and Neil Simon.
Employing an ingenious use of black and white projection, clever staging and a few significant props, MHS Theatre Arts head and show director Jodi Plaia was able to translate the beloved 1974 film to the school stage, working all of the spring semester with the cast, crew and orchestra. The MHS production kept the original’s farcical reference to early horror films, those silly running gags (mere mention of Frau Blücher still elicits the screaming neighs of horses) and the ultimate lunacy of Dr. Frankenstein introducing his now-sophisticated “Creature” to the village people in top hat and tails for the ultimate buck and wing, “Puttin’ On the Ritz.”
For those who never saw the original, non-musical “Young Frankenstein,” the film was Brooks’ homage to the Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi horror films of the ‘30s and ‘40s, filtered through outsized characters and rollicking schtick.
The learned Dr. Frederick Frankenstein (Jake Dvorsky) so wants to distance himself and his work from that of his obviously crazy grandfather who once tried to animate dead people that he insists on pronouncing his name “Frankensteen.”
Frankenstein is engaged to the joyfully self-involved Elizabeth (Martha Thatcher), whose mixed message of love includes a nutty song of longing for the doctor — as long as he doesn’t touch her.
He is called to Transylvania to put his newly deceased grandfather’s estate in order, where he arrives to ask the cherubic shoeshine boy, “Pardon me, boy, is this the Transylvania station?” He is rewarded, of course, with, “Ya, track number nine. Can I give you a shine?”
Frankenstein is quickly joined by the buxom Inga (Nancy Walecki) as research assistant and Igor (pronounced “Eye-gor”), the manservant whose grandfather once served Frankenstein’s grandfather. Sage Smith, as Igor, had the unenviable job of playing a character the late, hilarious, Marty Feldman was born to play in all his eye-popping glory. But she did an admirable job, limping maniacally around the stage in fervent subservience to the young doctor. What hump, indeed.
Walecki takes a brief moment in the original movie and turns it into a delightful, yodeling slice of vaudeville with her song “Roll in Ze Hay,” while a buggy bouncingly carries the trio to the castle Frankenstein (cue lightening).
We learn that the castle’s faithful housekeeper, Frau Blücher (neigh, neigh!) had more than a domestic servant relationship with Frankenstein’s grandfather. In fact, as the ghoulish-voiced Camille Wormser intones, “He Vas My Boyfriend.”
Frankenstein eventually decides he cannot escape his legacy and builds a creature from a recently hanged criminal giant and the purloined brain of someone Igor describes as “Abby Normal.” Chaos ensues until Frankenstein engineers a “brain transfer.” The Creature assures the towns people of his transferred civility and Frankenstein gets a dose of the Creature’s, well, sweet mystery of life.
All the principals were laugh-out-loud funny, with Dvorsky, particularly, handling Frankenstein’s patter songs adroitly. Director Plaia said, “Everyone had the movie performances watching them over their shoulders. We wanted to pay homage to this great, iconic classic, but make it our own.”
They did make it their own, creating their own characters, but with all the best bits from the movie still on stage: “Put the candle back!” “Walk this way!” and the entire rib-tickling scene of the Creature as unfortunate dinner guest of the blind hermit.
Clever projection onto cyclones onstage took us from a winding path through the forest to the castle door and down into Frankenstein’s laboratory. The black and white projection design, by Nick Van Houten, was an excellent example of cash-strapped budgets getting enormous bang for a buck.
Under the direction of Bill Bixler, the 30-piece orchestra, heavy on brass and woodwinds, provided the right schmaltz for a Busby Berkeley camp musical. “Young Frankenstein” appears to be Bixler’s swan song with MHS, though there is reputedly an active campaign to prevent him from retiring.
“These kids really pushed themselves,” Bixler said. “It started out a complete train wreck and then got better.”
This train pulled smoothly into the station, reminding us that great comedy transcends generations.