Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein kicks off Walnut Street Theatre’s 211th season

Cover photo: Dan Olmstead and Ben Dibble. Photo by Mark Garvin

-Brenda Hillegas

The Walnut Street Theatre is so special.  I’ll say it just once in this season of reviews- it’s the oldest continuously operating theatre in the English-speaking world and the oldest theatre in the United States. The fact that Walnut Street Theatre was founded in 1809 should give all of that away. The theatre also premiered many shows before they headed to Broadway and became classics (A Streetcar Named Desire and Gigi, to name a few).  And now, to kick off their 211th season, the Walnut Street Theatre is premiering the revised London version of Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein, the first time this version of the musical will be seen in America.

Mel Brooks himself adapted his 1974 comedy/horror movie into the 2007 stage production. Brooks’ fans will find themselves enjoying the same unique humor on stage that they would find in cult classics like Blazing Saddles and Spaceballs.  And if you were lucky enough to catch the musical version of The Producers, you’ll certainly find yourself wrapped up in Young Frankenstein and fall in love with it like I did. Mel Brooks, a musical, campy horror/comedy scenarios…really, what’s not to love?

Young Frankenstein is the perfect show to kick off any theatre’s season. The air is just turning crisp, leaves are possibly falling, the amount of time you spend outdoors is likely coming to an end. Time to get back into a theatre seat and open up a Playbill for another series of shows. Young Frankenstein eases you in gently with a light-hearted story that’s silly and familiar, and gets you in a Halloween mood.

Brooks wrote Young Frankenstein to parody the horror genre. The story begins with Frederick Frankenstein, a teaching scientist who insists that he is nothing like his grandfather, Victor (you know, the guy who created “monsters” in Transylvania). Of course, Frederick then tells his class he’s heading to his grandfather’s hometown to take care of his estate. We see Frederick saying goodbye to his fiance, Elizabeth (played by Casey Elizabeth Gill) as he boards a ship…and we can guess what happens next.

Frederick meets new friends in Transylvania and decides to stay! There’s Igor (Luke Bradt), the grandson of Victor Frankenstein’s henchman; Inga (Alanna J. Smith), a lab assistant; Frau Blucher (Mary Martello) who later reveals that she was once Victor’s girlfriend. Frederick is first reluctant to continue his grandfather’s work, but soon realizes the importance and sends Igor for the perfect brain to create a new monster!

Every cast member is brilliant and perfectly portrays these characters. They’re funny and over the top, just as you would expect from a Mel Brooks production. Ben Dibble, as Frederick Frankenstein, had big shoes to fill (Gene Wilder in the movie version, Roger Bart in the Broadway run). I’ve seen Ben in numerous shows at the Walnut Street Theatre and it’s clear he can easily adapt to any character, any setting. I’d see him in anything!

Mary Martello was also phenomenal as Frau Blucher. Her performance of “He Vas My Boyfriend” was one of the best numbers of the show and it was a thrill to watch her perform every one of her lines! Other highlights from the cast included “Please Don’t Touch Me”, “It Could Work”, and “Roll in the Hay” in Act One. They all created a lot of laughter from the audience and created a big smile on my face.

Dan Olmstead, in the role of the Monster, brought out all sorts of emotions for his character. Overall, he made us laugh. But, we also rooted for him and wanted people to be on his side. The Monster, along with most of the cast members, perform “Puttin’ on the Ritz”- a big showstopping number toward the end of Act Two. Choreographer Mary Jane Houdina deserves a shout out for it. I enjoyed watching and if this were the movie version, I’d be rewinding to watch it again.

The musical is full of cliches that are intended and couldn’t work without all of the one liners and thoughts of “I know where this is going…”. It was also easy to see that the cast of Young Frankenstein had fun with their roles and received such an overwhelming response from the audience. As new characters were introduced on stage, the audience cheered. This could be because many of the actors have been on the Walnut Street stage before and we were simply welcoming them back. But also because the movie version is so well loved and the cast clearly understands that in their performances. Overall, the audience seemed happy to see Mel Brooks’ beloved characters come to life and couldn’t wait for certain scenes to play out and lines to be spoken. You’ll leave this show feeling happy and warm. And you’ll probably head home to watch the movie, like I did.

It’s not always easy to translate a movie to the stage. Mel Brooks can do it. The Broadway run wasn’t very long, but Brooks took the time to revamp the show and make some cuts here and there as it transitioned to the London stage. Because of his dedication to the project, we’re lucky to be able to see Young Frankenstein here in Philadelphia. Don’t miss your opportunity to have some fun at the theatre and see a piece of work that means so much to so many people. Tickets are available here.

Opening night was special because we also got a glimpse into Walnut Street Theatre’s expansion project and what we can expect after they break ground next spring. It’s going to be great with a renovated lobby and box office, more space for education programs, two rehearsal halls, a restaurant for theatre goers to enjoy, and a 400-seat theatre-in the-round (the first of its kind in the region). Matt Garfield, a 30+ year member and chairman of the Walnut’s Board of Trustees, presented the theatre with a $3 million donation to support the expansion. It was wonderful to see him talk about the project and his love for the theatre.  

 

 

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