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Stage version of 'Young Frankenstein' lacks film's spark

Lately, Shea's Performing Arts Center has been going after the monster market.

In February, the theater got a visit from "Shrek The Musical," a surprisingly affecting and wildly irreverent stage adaptation of the Disney film. Next month, the green-skinned Elphaba will descend once again into the theater for a repeat performance of "Wicked."

And Tuesday night, to officially make this the spring of the green-skinned monster musical, Shea's opened its six-day run of "Young Frankenstein," Mel Brooks' manic Broadway show based on his 1974 film of the same title.

Since its less-than-impressive run on Broadway, the show's producers have scaled the musical's production values back significantly for the road and endeavored to cut some of the fat out of the script. But the bad news is that much of the humor -- to the extent it was ever there in the first place -- has been hacked away with it.

Perfunctory laughter, rather than the outright screeching and hooting we have rightfully come to associate with the comic genius known as Mel Brooks, was the sound that characterized the evening.

Throughout his career, Mel Brooks -- whose appeal comes from his propensity to overdo his own schtick to the point where its absurdity somehow becomes perfect -- has built up a great deal of cache. If any man is a candidate for being cut a little slack now and then, Brooks is it. But with "Young Frankenstein," as he came right out and said in an interview included on the special features of the film's Blu-ray release, he made this show because Thomas Meehan convinced him it would make a killing at the box office.

That approach may have worked for "The Producers," which was a backstage musical with a sure-fire built-in production number in "Springtime for Hitler." But lightning did not strike twice.

In the pantheon of Mel Brooks projects, "Young Frankenstein" ranks as one of the most schtick-laden and consciously vaudevillian, which on the surface makes it an ideal candidate for Broadway. But it is also the most stylized, which makes it a gigantic challenge.

The 1974 film was powered by a very specific brand of humor, which depended, even more than the chuckle-worthy quality of its gags, on the idiosyncrasies of its individual performers: Marty Feldman as Igor, Gene Wilder as young Frankenstein, Cloris Leachman as Frau Blucher and the rest. Though the film's humor is broad as broad can be, most of the real laughs come because of closeups on things like Leachman's face, something that's difficult to replicate -- though certainly not impossible -- in the wide-shot medium of musical theater.

Had Brooks, book co-writer Meehan and director Susan Stroman not tried to hew so closely to the film in nearly every way and endeavored to create something new, a la "Shrek," this wouldn't have been much of a problem.

As it is, though, the show turns bits that worked on film into bits that don't work on Broadway and doesn't add much more to the mix. In that way, it's a lot like "Spamalot," which also was based on great material, but unimaginatively reconceived for the stage.

None of this is to say that the show's cast doesn't do its level best to rise to the task set for it by this production. Cory English, as Igor, breathes what life he can into the production from the instant he appears and works like a champ throughout the show to rescue as many laughs as he can.

As Inga, Dr. Frankenstein's comely assistant, Synthia Link is lovely and in fine voice. And as the tightly wound Elizabeth, Janine Divita delivers a gorgeous rendition of Brooks' bawdy ballad "Deep Love."

Perhaps it's not fair to compare, but when the precedent was set by someone as maniacally appealing and innately hilarious as Gene Wilder, one expects a measure of star quality in the role of Young Frankenstein that simply wasn't there Tuesday in Christopher Ryan's performance.

Stroman's choreography is a great deal of fun throughout, though Brooks' songs and lyrics are deft pastiches of period styles with a clever double-entendre here and there, but don't come nearly close to his admittedly very high standards.

In all, though, this "Young Frankenstein," as much as fans of the original wish it weren't so, is dead on the operating table.

e-mail: cdabkowski@buffnews.com

> Theater Review

"Young Frankenstein"

Review: 2 1/2 stars (Out of 4)

Tuesday night in Shea's Performimng Arts Center

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