Saturday, July 6, 2013

Zap meets zip at every turn: The monster is loose at Footlite Musicals

Though Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein" has been probed for its serious themes about life and mankind's overweening desire to master it, in pop culture the story has come in for interpretations a few rungs lower on the profundity ladder.

Falling right through to the bottom, but with the genius of all the great clowns behind it, is Mel Brooks' "Young Frankenstein," the musical adaptation of his madcap movie focusing on the grandson of the notorious middle European scientist. In the late 1930s, Frederick Frankenstein journeys back to the Old Country to lay claim to his estate, soon falling prey to the temptation to galvanize the dangerous family legacy.

Footlite Musicals opened its Young Adult production of the show Friday night at Hedback Theater.  The production soared enviably through the absurdity of Brooks' imaginings. I say "enviably" because who among us has not wished to be so blithe as to make all-out fun of fear and the specter of scientism that haunts the pursuit of sound science?

Frederick and Igor celebrate being "Together Again for the First Time."
The spirit of "Young Frankenstein,"  centered on the Brooks' characteristically no-holds-barred penchant for tastelessness in pursuit of cheap laughs, is fully alive in this production as Kathleen Clarke Horrigan directs it.  And quite honestly, anyone who looks into the long history of comedy must admit that tastelessness and cheap laughs are woven inextricably into its fabric.

Mugging is a strong feature in Brooks comedy, and Footlite's high-energy cast never misses a chance to look startled, dismayed, lustful, fearful or obsessed as the occasion demands. Justin Klein as Frederick is put to the test early on, as he has to deliver a patter song in praise of the brain, articulating the fast-running text while projecting the glow of excitement that will eventually do the young professor in. Transport him to Transylvania, give him a willing stooge (Igor) and a comely assistant (Inga) and he's soon after far more than merely claiming his property rights.

Egged on by an importunate dream featuring an irresistible song, "Join the Family Business," Frederick is putty in the hands of his Frankensteinian fate: He revives his grandfather's misbegotten quest to make new life from dead tissue. The ancestors' song is one of the production's clear triumphs, thanks to the snappily executed choreography of Trish Roberds. As the bedazzled Frederick says of his forebears upon being roused from restless slumber: "They were so crazy — but, boy, can they dance!"

Frederick has left behind a self-absorbed, rigorously unsentimental fiancee in New York. Predictably, her untimely appearance in Transylvania just as things are coming to a boil in the castle laboratory complicates everything. She is played with relentless energy by Jennifer Rowe, whose performance of the second-act power ballad "Deep Love" sends up not only her character but also the whole pop-diva brand. Let's just say her amatory ambivalence about the creator does not extend to the creature.

Also assisting Klein in making his portrayal in the title role memorable is the pop-eyed, limber-limbed Damon Clevenger as Igor — their buddy song, "Together Again for the First Time" is the show's hit duet — and Kyra McGuirk as the flirtatious, slightly scientifically minded ingenue Inga.

Matthew Hook's Monster is so much more than a notable achievement in makeup and costuming, though it is that, too.  His roar is stentorian, his grunts are guttural and rafter-rattling.  When some scientific tinkering and conscientious training raise his intelligence level acceptably, the Monster is hilarious in leading the ensemble in a Broadway-style showstopper, complete with top hats, taps, tails and canes. The evergreen vehicle is Irving Berlin's "Puttin' on the Ritz," the show's one song not from the workshop of Brooks and his collaborator, Thomas Meehan.

The lightly applied historical setting allows the show to make apt use of several musical styles from the 1930s and just before—all suitable to the panache and shtick of vaudeville, the mother's milk of Brooks comedy. There was an Al Jolson/Bert Williams heart-tugger in the blind Hermit's "Please Send Me Someone," performed at full throttle by Chris Parker, and the incandescent  first-act finale, "Transylvania Mania," a send-up of those dance-craze ensemble numbers like "The Varsity Drag." In this case, the dance evolves spontaneously as the wily Igor tries to distract suspicious villagers from the sounds of monstrous life emanating from the dark castle.

The castle comes with another formidable aspect, that of housekeeper Frau Blucher, to whom Tara Roberds lent formidable heft and a wealth of intimidating scowls. Other supporting character roles filled capably Friday included the prosthetically challenged Inspector Hans Kemp (Devin Smith) and the loping, accidentally insightful village idiot, Ziggy (Dorothy Vanore).

The singing, prepared by Matthew Konrad Tippel, rarely dipped from a high standard of vigor, expressiveness and true pitch. The accompanying band, whose tasks included the frequent insertion of vamp-till-ready patterns during scene changes,  met every challenge; overall music direction was well-coordinated by Schuyler Brinson. The mutually complementary set, sound and lighting design by Andy Darr, Zach Rosing and Ryan Mullins (respectively) contributed fully to the show's zany, mock-scary atmosphere.