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A freshly funny 'Frankenstein'; Mel Brooks' comic musical gets a new life in revamped tour

There's no mistaking a Mel Brooks comedy.

From his triumphant film debut with "The Producers" in 1968, through the slapstick-laden "Blazing Saddles," "Spaceballs" and "Robin Hood: Men in Tights" and on to his latter-day successes on Broadway, Brooks' vaudevillian, innuendo-heavy brand of low humor has become an instantly recognizable part of the American language.

And in each of Brooks' films, no matter who is acting the part, you can always picture Brooks himself mouthing the set-ups, dancing the steps and delivering the punch lines. So it is with "Young Frankenstein," Brooks' 2007 musical reimagining of his own immensely popular 1974 comedy of the same title, a tour of which will park itself in Shea's Performing Arts Center on Tuesday for a six-day run.

Brooks' black-and-white send-up of James Whale's 1931 classic, starring Gene Wilder as the slightly unhinged grandson of the Dr. Frankenstein of lore, Marty Feldman as his bug-eyed, hunch-backed assistant Igor and Cloris Leachman as the quirky castle-keeper Frau Blucher, was by far the most popular film in Brooks' long and productive career.

So when the more than $16 million production opened on Broadway in 2007, on the heels of Brooks' wildly successful stage version of "The Producers," expectations were sky-high. But the show, which carried the consciously ostentatious title "The New Mel Brooks Musical Young Frankenstein" and charged $450 for premium seats, had a hard time fighting through the economic recession and struggled to counter mixed reviews and perceptions of arrogance. It closed after a little more than a year, falling far short of its producers' expectations. (A New York Times headline announcing the show's closure read: "Broadway Is Dry-Eyed as Monster Falls Hard.")

Susan Stroman, the five-time Tony Award winner who directed and choreographed both "Young Frankenstein" and "The Producers," attributed the show's truncated Broadway run to a bad economy. She said the current tour, which launched in 2009 and was tightened and retooled after its Broadway run, has breathed new life into the franchise.

Stroman, who was in on the production from its inception, said Brooks' spirit and unmistakable comic sensibility permeate every element of the show.

"We would sit around my living room and he would jump up and turn into these characters," Stroman said. "He would become Dr. Frankenstein, he would become Igor, he would even become Inga, in order to get these jokes. They would just sort of pour out of him and he would turn into these different characters. It's very much through-and-through Mel Brooks."

Many of the songs in the production are extended versions of gags or well-remembered lines from the film. Brooks, who wrote all of the music and lyrics, began by building out one of those lines, Frau Blucher's melodramatic declaration about the long dead Dr. Frankenstein ("He vas my boyfriend!") into an incredibly silly, Tango-inspired ballad full of wildly inappropriate lyrics and eye-rolling puns. Which is to say: vintage Brooks.

"Once he cracked that," Stroman said, "he was off and running."

The show features a wide range of pastiches, from the beer-clinking polka/yodeling number "Roll in the Hay" to the barbershop-quartet harmonies of "Welcome to Transylvania," and one show-stopping version of Irving Berlin's "Puttin' on the Ritz" featuring a breathless tap-dancing performance from Young Frankenstein and his beloved Monster.

Stroman, following Brooks' lead, played the part of protean choreographer, dreaming up elaborate numbers based on actual Transylvanian folk dances and others with nods to Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire.

The challenge with a piece like "Young Frankenstein," which is so embedded into the pop-culture consciousness of a certain generation, was to be faithful to the film while adding an entirely new comic sensibility for the stage. That's a balance Stroman believes the producers of the show struck perfectly.

"We focused on trying to make it fresh and new, but we were not going to throw those good jokes away," Stroman said. For example, one line from the film involving a naughty double-entendre, has been extended into a bit of bravura physical comedy in which Cory English -- a Rochester-born dancer who plays the role of Igor -- performs something of an Olympic gymnastics routine. "It gets two giant laughs" as opposed to just one, said Stroman. Repeating a mantra that seems to apply as much to her own outlook as to Brooks', she added: "The greatest sound in the world is laughter."

English, a comic actor in the grand tradition of Broadway's great funnymen, whom Stroman hailed as "a major force," is the source of many of those laughs. Speaking to The News from a tour stop in Memphis, Tenn., English explained how he came to enter the world of physical comedy.

After spending a semester at Monroe Community College, English decided college wasn't for him and took off for New York City, where he slept on a friend's floor, landed a day job at a Hyatt hotel and gradually worked his way into the choruses of several Broadway shows.

"Once I started getting into the Broadway shows as a dancer, I started watching the short, fat character actors, the funnymen: Nathan Lane, Ernie Sabella, Lewis Stadlen. I'd sit backstage and I'd watch them and say, 'I think that's my future!' " English said. "So via osmosis, by watching them almost every night, I think I picked up their comic timing."

To hone his comic skills, English took a year to train at the Drama Studio in England, where he sank his teeth into Chekhov and Shakespeare. Before landing the role of Igor in "Young Frankenstein," English, now 42, put those chops to work in another juicy Mel Brooks role, the blustery Max Bialystock in the West End version of "The Producers." The role of Igor, who has less stage time than Bialystock but more cultural recognition because of Marty Feldman's iconic performance in the film, provides a different kind of challenge for English.

"You have to give tribute to Marty Feldman. There's no doubt about it. It's what people want to see. So, I watched some YouTube clips of Marty Feldman playing Igor," English said. "I didn't want to just do an impersonation of Marty Feldman playing Igor. I had to get his flavor and his style but then still make it my own."

For English, who has been playing the role for 18 months and will finally hang up his hump in May to rest up before pursuing other projects, making all those tried-and-true jokes seem spontaneous night after night is difficult. But, as for Brooks and Stroman, it's the sort of challenge he relishes.

"To keep it fresh is certainly a jump, eight shows a week for that long. But, for me, as soon as I hear that audience, it's like a brand-new show, like I haven't done it before," English said. "I feel a responsibility to make them laugh."

e-mail: cdabkowski@buffnews.com

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"Young Frankenstein"

Opens at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday in Shea's Performing Arts Center, 646 Main St., and runs through March 27. Tickets are $27.50 to $62.50.

For more information, call 745-3000 or visit www.sheas.org.

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