Encore Michigan

Penny Seats’ ‘Young Frankenstein’ brings the funny to the park

Review July 14, 2018 David Kiley

ANN ARBOR, Mich.–Fun. The adaptation of Mel Brooks Young Frankenstein is plain fun. It is so much fun in good hands that it makes me wonder why it doesn’t get done more often by regional theaters instead of absolute dreck perennials like Greater Tuna and the dreaded Nun plays.

Indeed, watching The Penny Seats’ current production in West Park here, even with the limitations of outdoor theatre in the park, I can’t help but be reminded of the comic genius of Mel Brooks whose film work has been converted to stage musical, and then the musicals converted back to film. The man had, and has, a real knack for the funny.

For the uninitiated, the story is a comedic send-up of “Son of Frankenstein,” the 1939 film with Basil Rathbone playing the grandson of the original mad doctor who re-animated a patchwork of grave-robbed remains and a new brain purloined from a local medical school. This younger Dr. Frankenstein has returned to his grandfather’s castle in Transylvania to conduct some experiments and commune with the spirit of his grandfather whose memory still haunts the community that had been victimized by the monster decades earlier.

Ben Rowe plays the grandson, Froedrick Frankenstein. The wiry, elastic Mr. Rowe has an almost naturally comedic flair, and with the Brooks material, he has innumerable chances to show off his gift for timing, which is only occasionally foiled by the glitches that come with outdoor theater. On the whole, though, he does a fine job of channeling the late great Gene Wilder who originated the role and is credited along with Brooks for writing the film.

The supporting cast and ensemble is quite strong with Laura Sagolla playing the castle’s randy housekeeper, Frau Blucher (cue the horses); Logan Balcom playing Igor, the hunchbacked assistant. The lanky Mr. Balcom is as spooky as an apple pie, with a face to go with it, but he manages to hit most of the comedic buttons just right. Paige Martin is sexy and funny as Inga, the young Frankenstein’s roll-in-the-hay bodacious “lab assistant.” Kimberly Alley plays the breathy, virginal (up to a point) fiancée of Froedrich. And John Demerell as the “man about town” Monster continues to impress us with his versatility as he moves from theater to theater seemingly able to play any genre and any kind of part and sing any kind of song. He certainly does not possess the seven feet of height needed for the creature, but even at 5’11 or so, Mr. Demerell acts like he’s a foot taller and we believe him. He has just enough stiffness in his gate without losing the joke in his eyes, and he utterly shines in the “Puttin’ On The Ritz” number with Mr. Rowe.

The West Park setting works quite well for the story. The castle laboratory where the Doctor does his work in both the original movie and the Brooks adaptation features a space exposed to the sky, so it all make sense in the large patio space of the park. The music is pre-recorded, though R. MacKenzie Lewis is credited with music direction and working with the singers, all of whom do pretty well. It’s not easy to follow a recorded soundtrack, and doing it out of doors is even tougher. There a few sections of group music numbers that went pitchy as the actors were trying to find one another. But on the whole it doesn’t matter so much with this show.

Director Phil Simmons did well adapting the story to the outdoor spaces, but a few of the jokes got swallowed for want of being heard and one key scene in which the creature and fiancée Elizabeth are believed to have made love after he carried her off into the woods doesn’t quite work at all. No doubt, there was much debate on how to depict it in the broad open spaces without it being viewed as an uncomfortable rape scene. Brooks and the incredible Madeline Kahn were able to convey the comedy just right when, in the film, Kahn breaks out into “Oh sweet mystery of life, at last I’ve found you….” That is tried here, but the joke of the scene here felt like a bit like an unrung bell. Oh well.

But the batting average for delivering on some of Brooks’ best work in this production is very high, and an excellent time is to be had under the stars watching this comedy classic.