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Fort Wayne Civic unleashes Young Frankenstein (the musical)
By Michael Summers
Fort Wayne Reader
As an actor, Billy Dawson has done heavy drama. He’s done comedy. He’s done musicals and he’s done classics. But to hear him tell it, nothing in his acting experience has quite prepared him to play a lurching, lumbering green-faced golem who “speaks” in moans and grunts.
“As far as a character like this… no,” Dawson laughs. “Can’t say I’ve ever played anyone like him. It’s not something I’m used to.”
And to give Dawson his due, there’s not much call in musical theater for such a character outside of Young Frankenstein, the musical adaptation of Mel Brooks classic 1974 film which begins its run at the Fort Wayne Civic Theater on Saturday, February 13. The stage musical brings a fresh twist to some iconic roles and characters, adding some hilarious songs to what was already one of the funniest scripts ever.
It’s a bold move, adapting one of film’s most memorable and acclaimed comedies, but purists shouldn’t worry — not only was creator Mel Brooks behind the musical version of Young Frankenstein, he was actively involved in writing the songs and the new material.
When the musical adaptation of The Producers became an acclaimed hit in 2001, thoughts naturally turned to a follow-up. Several years later, Brooks and the creative team behind The Producers set their sights on giving Brooks’ Young Frankenstein the same treatment.
It debuted in 2007, and while it had a respectable run and successful tours, Young Frankenstein (the musical) wasn’t the unqualified phenomenon that The Producers was. Brooks himself has suggested that part of the problem was the source material — the original The Producers is a funny movie, but the original Young Frankenstein is a classic, one for the time-capsules and a massive hit with audiences. People just knew and loved the movie — and the jokes — too well…
Which is not to say the stage musical version of Young Frankenstein doesn’t hold up on its own — it’s a funny, funny script, and the songs fit seamlessly into the story, matching the tone and enhancing the vaudevillian silliness. Brooks wrote or co-wrote the new songs; many of the tunes seem like send ups of Broadway fare in the same way Young Frankenstein is a send up of Universal’s Frankenstein movies of the 30s: they’re mostly played for laughs, but amidst the bawdy jokes and one-liners is an almost affectionate appreciation for the form and all its conventions. They’re the kind of parodies that only a real fan — someone who really loves the genre — can create.
A few of the titles will be familiar to anyone who knows the movie. The audience — and Dr Frankenstein (AJ Lorenzini) — first meets laboratory assistant Inga (Jana Henly) with the tune “Roll In the Hay.” “That’s Inga’s yodeling song,” says Henly. “The tune is a little bit ‘adult,’ but in a fun, fun way.”
And Frau Blucher (Maggie Kole Hunter) gets the spotlight with “He Vas My Boyfriend,” which goes into a little more background with the “relationship” between Blucher and the old Doctor Frankenstein. Hunter loves performing the song not only because it’s funny (and a little bawdy) in its own right, but because it gives Blucher more motivation in the story, something more than just being strange. “It shows how she was connected to Victor, and why it’s important now to have their grandson carry on his work,” says Hunter. “So she has this ulterior motive that’s played out a little more in the musical.”
Of course, as Hunter is the first to admit, Young Frankenstein is pure high comedy, campy at times. Pretty much every line, whether sung or spoken, is there either to get a laugh or set us up for one. Motivation, back-story, character… it’s all secondary to the punchline. But many of the actors find tapping into those elements just a little bit can help them discover ways to make the characters their own. “It’s something I’ve thought a little about, if the audience is going to see (the actors from the film) as opposed to us,” Hunter says. “But… it’s Mel Brooks. It’s just high comedy, with lots of room for the actors to have fun. As long as you know that and play that, the audience will enjoy it.”
“It’s definitely challenging, because it’s such an iconic movie,” says AJ Lorenzini, who plays Dr. Frankenstein. “It’s finding that balance, giving the audience what they’re expecting, but being able to do your own thing with the characters.”
For Igor, Gavin Drew says he already had an appreciation for the character long before he even auditioned for the part. His introduction to Young Frankenstein the movie and Young Frankenstein happened almost simultaneously. He says he heard a copy of the original Broadway cast recording when he was in 5th grade, and thought “wow! It’s a musical version of one of my favorite movies!” “Yes, probably inappropriate for a 5th grader,” he laughs. “But I immediately fell in love with the character of Igor. He’s the funniest guy in the story.”
When he got the part for the Civic’s production, he says he tried to sit back and read the script objectively, putting the movie and stage adaptation out of his head. “In the movie, the way Marty Feldman brilliantly plays it is very broad. Igor is creepy, but he doesn’t know he’s creepy,” Drew says. “But to me, there’s a ‘sweetness’ to Igor. He’s a nice guy, eager to please, wants to do his best.”
Jana Hanly is returning to the Civic stage after nearly a decade’s absence. For the past nine years, she’s worked as a professional singer and dancer on cruise ships — a job that gave her a lot of performance experience, yet fell short when it came to giving Hanly opportunities to perfect her yodeling skills. “I wanted to play Inga, because Inga seemed like the hardest part,” Hanly says. “She does things I’ve never done on stage before.”
As for Billy Dawson, the challenge is simply in communicating through grunts and groans. Well, I say “simply,” but there’s nothing really simple about it. “Ever since (Young Frankenstein the musical) came out, it’s been on my bucket list, but I never says myself as the Monster,” says Dawson. But it’s been a joyous ride, playing this big ogre of a man.”
And Dawson’s favorite scene? Like you have to ask… “’Puttin’ On the Ritz’” he says. “In the stage show, it turns into this big musical number. I also get to ‘sing’…”
Also, as Dawson describes it, the “Puttin on the Ritz” scene encapsulates one of the strengths of seeing a show like Young Frankenstein on stage, with an audience. An excitement builds around that scene, It’s like a well-known rock band encoring with one of their big hits — sure, you know its coming, you’ve heard it before, but somehow, that doesn’t lessen the pleasure of it when it gets there.
And another positive about performing in Young Frankenstein? The film may cast a big shadow, but for the actors, it’s also just a blast to do. “I hate to say this, but every show has a point when you’re in rehearsals and you think ‘I could really do with a night off. Just one’,” Lorenzini says. “This show… it’s almost like actor’s recess. (Director) Philip (Colglazier) has us come up with these crazy ideas… if it sticks, if it’s funny, then we go with it.”
The Fort Wayne Civic Theater presents Young Frankenstein
Arts United Center
303 East Main Street
Saturday February 13 8 pm
Sunday February 14 2 pm
Friday February 19 8 pm
Saturday February 20 8 pm
Friday February 26 8 pm
Saturday February 27 8 pm
Sunday February 28 2 pm
Tickets: $29 Adults; $24 Senior Matinees; $17 Age 23 and under
Tickets available at the box office; or call (260) 424-5220; or online at fwcivic.org.