By Rikki Lee Travolta
Adapting a cult-classic film into a Broadway musical can be a dicey gamble. You need to stay true to the elements of the story that led to the film’s popularity, but you must make it work on stage.
Furthermore, when it comes to the characters, actors have to walk a thin line. Nobody in the audience wants an imitation of the actors from the film, but we do have very specific expectations that the essence of the characters as played on film will ring true in the theatre.
Young Frankenstein is one of the funniest movies of all time. That is thanks to many things – chief among them the irreverent comedy talents of Mel Brooks. Credit also has to go to the performances of Gene Wilder, Marty Feldman, Peter Boyle, Teri Garr, Madeline Kahn, and Cloris Leachman.
Inspired by the success of his Broadway musical adaptation of his comedy classic The Producers, in 2007 Brooks brought an adaptation of his 1974 film Young Frankenstein to New York theater patrons. Brooks previously described Young Frankenstein as his best film, and there are millions of fans who would agree. Doing the Broadway adaptation himself along with Thomas Meehan, the musical is every bit as brilliantly funny as the film – at least when performed by a cast of impeccable talent.
Thankfully, impeccable talent is always on the menu at Mercury Theater, home to some of the most enjoyable musicals not only in Chicago, but in the entire region. From direction, to choreography, to set design, to the performers on stage, Mercury Theater knows how to deliver a hit.
The current mounting of Young Frankenstein playing on the Mercury Theater stage runs through December 31, 2023, and it is a show that demands to be seen, enjoyed, and lovingly treasured. Mercury’s Young Frankenstein is wild, wacky, and absolutely hilarious.
Under the skilled direction of Mercury’s executive producer L. Walter Stearns, this marks the Chicago premiere of a new version of Young Frankenstein that wowed UK audiences. Stearns captures all the best laugh-out-loud comic moments of the film, with even more hilarity added for live theater audiences. Brenda Didier provides the peppy and fun choreography that you’d expect from one of the city’s most talented creatives, and Eugene Dizon doesn’t miss a beat with his glorious music direction.
The story parodies the classic Universal Pictures classic horror movies of yesteryear including Frankenstein (1931), Bride of Frankenstein (1935), and Son of Frankenstein (1939) in a way that only Mel Brooks and Gene Wilder could have ever conceived.
Victor Frankenstein has passed away, his monsters created from reanimating dead bodies having become widely known – brining shame to the family name. His grandson Frederick inherits the family estate in Transylvania and travels there to settle the paperwork and associated responsibilities. He expects to return to his fiancé Elizabeth in the US as soon as possible. However, tempted by the written records of his grandfather’s work, he perseveres to continue the controversial science.
Aided by hunchback Igor, his grandfather’s mistress Frau Blücher, and sexy assistant Inga, Frederick succeeds in bringing his own creature to life. Being a comedy, there is the twist that Igor accidentally provides the doctor with a damaged brain for the creature – setting the stage for a host of hysterical complications.
One of the most important jobs a director has is selecting the cast. Assisted by casting associate Keely Vasquez, director Stearns has captured the absolute perfect performers to make this show a must-see musical comedy event. Be prepared to get your freak on and laugh until tears run down your face. Mercury has created another winner.
Dr. Frederick Frankenstein is played to hilarious perfection by Sean Fortunato. He incorporates the essential elements of Gene Wilder’s take on the character without resorting to imitation. Without redefining the character, he still makes it his own. It is a lovely homage to the past while creating something all his own. Fortunato’s likeability factor is undeniable and his song and dance skills are a bonafide joy to experience. I could not think of a better actor for the role.
The Monster is superbly brought to life by Andrew MacNaughton. He is a human highlight reel of comic expressions and physical comedy. His tap dance duet with his shadow is one of the most creative and impressive dance routines this city has seen in years and his performance in “Puttin’ On the Ritz” was orgasmically funny. Then, later in the story, a procedure adds remarkable intelligence to creature’s brain, and MacNaughton handles the change brilliantly.
Marty Feldman played Igor in the Mel Brooks film version of Young Frankenstein and his performance had a considerable impact on my career. I got my start in entertainment playing Tiny Tim on a television broadcast of A Christmas Carol. To land the role, the producers asked to see me walk with a limp. I had just seen Young Frankenstein on video for the first time – so I based my limp on Marty Feldman’s character. That cracked the producers up and I landed the part.
So, what do you do when you have to find an actor capable of filling Marty Feldman’s shoes? Apparently, the answer is that you hire Ryan Stajmiger – because he is a laugh riot as Igor. I could not stop clapping for this wonderfully talent actor during curtain call. I doubt I’ll ever be asked to audition for the role of Tiny Tim again, but if I do, I will persevere to do a Stajmiger limp.
From top to bottom, the cast is truly great. Lillian Castillo makes the role of Frederick’s high society betrothed Elizabeth all her own – and damn is she funny. Add to that a voice that will send chills up your back, and you can see why Castillo has a bright future ahead of her.
As Frederick’s other love interest Inga, Isabella Andrews is wickedly good. She will make you fall in love with her beauty while being hypnotized by her comic timing and delivery.
Jonah D. Winston is quickly becoming one of my favorite Chicago actors. His take on the role of Inspector Hans Kemp, the law and order of the village where the Frankenstein castle sits, is yet another sign of his excellence as an actor.
The role of Frau Blücher has never been played as captivating and side-splittingly funny as it is by Mary Robin Roth. Words cannot describe how talented this veteran star is. If you want the best, look no further than Mary Robin Roth.
Sam Shankman also turns in a nice performance as the blind hermit who befriends Frankenstein’s monster only to torture the creature with a lap full of boiling soup. The rest of the spectacular ensemble contributing to great comic moments, vaudevillian style humor, and fun outbursts of song and dance includes Kayla Marie Shipman, Callan Roberts, Natalie Henry, Mai Hartwich, Katie Engler, Holden Davenport, and Tim Brickey.
Scenic designer Bob Knuth has done an impeccable job transforming the old movie house into the perfect setting for the performers to bring Young Frankenstein to life. His creativity is impressive, and is aided by set dressing and properties design by Ellen Markus. Lighting design by G. “Max” Maxin IV and sound design by Kurt Snieckus are well executed.
Costume design by Rachel Boylan, wig design by Keith Ryan, and makeup design by assistant director Tommy Novak are just great. Credit also goes to dialect coach Kathy Logelin, violence and intimacy director Alison Dornheggen, and stage manager Daniel J. Hanson.
Young Frankenstein at Mercury Theater is one of the highlights of the season and a feel-good comedy that will put a smile on your face and a song in your heart. There is a medical caution though – your cheeks will hurt from smiling so much throughout the show and your hands will throb after giving the cast the endless applause they deserve.
It all comes down to this: Mercury Theater is throwing a party and you’re invited. L. Walter Stearns’ Young Frankenstein will have you in stitches. It’s impossible not to have the time of your life.
Get a babysitter and make Young Frankenstein your date night treat. If you don’t have kids, you can probably skip getting the babysitter but still make it a point to see Young Frankenstein – and if you are so inclined, have a few drinks in the adjoining lounge to add extra fuel to the evening.
You can catch Young Frankenstein at Mercury Theater Wednesday through Saturday at 7:30 PM, with 2:30 PM matinees on Saturdays and Sundays. The theater is located at 3745 N. Southport Avenue in Chicago.
For tickets and show information visit www.MercuryTheaterChicago.com.
Pre-production photos by Brandon Dalquist
Production photos by Liz Lauren
Peace. Love. Trust.
Rikki Lee Travolta
For more reviews visit: Theatre in Chicago – your source for What’s on Stage in the Chicago Area
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