Although Frederick Frankenstein, the brilliant young brain surgeon from New York, arrives in eerie Transylvania with almost no luggage, Young Frankenstein, the brash musical about Frederick and his monstrously creative forebears, arrives at the Fox Theatre laden with considerable baggage. Mel Brooks' musical adaptation of his own 1974 movie was deemed something of a debacle when it debuted on Broadway in 2007. So, why should it be any more entertaining in St. Louis than it was in New York? No reason, except that it is. Young Frankenstein is still loud, garish and ribald — and by evening's end there's a fine chance you will have had a thumping good time.
One thing is for sure: The show is hardly quality material. Some of the production numbers (staged by director-choreographer Susan Stroman mostly without inspiration) look as if they might have been extracted from musicals produced by Max Bialystock, the protagonist of Brooks' first show, The Producers. Are these numbers supposed to be parodying bad theater? Or are they simply bad?
The negligible songs are credited to Brooks, who should be prohibited from even humming in the proximity of an arranger. Late in the evening when a real song, Irving Berlin's "Puttin' on the Ritz," intrudes itself into the action, even as it's being butchered by Frederick's abnormal brainchild (the amusing Rye Mullis as the Monster), Berlin's tune is nirvana to the ears. Ironically, it is Berlin and not Brooks who draws the most creative choreography from Stroman. Her staging of "Puttin' on the Ritz" finally harnesses the wild excess that we have craved all evening long.
It would also be easy to criticize the sophomoric script by Brooks and Thomas Meehan (who, one senses, had less input here than he had on The Producers). Brooks is living proof that NeverNeverLand truly does exist. Now in his eighties, he remains a Lost Boy who never grew up; his mind is fixated on that pubescent stage when children still get a thrill from describing private parts of the anatomy with phrases like "pee pee."
So what does work here? For starters, the cast. And they work hard, because they have a lot to overcome. But who wouldn't want to go on a hayride with the appealing Anne Horak, whose Transylvanian peasant girl is built to order for Brooks' suggestive humor? As the demented, hump-switching Igor, James Gray has been with the show from the outset, and he knows where the laughs are. (On opening night Gray's microphone kept cutting out during his first song. It wasn't such a terrible thing to miss Brooks' lyrics; it saved us having to forget them two minutes later.) Brad Oscar is rewarded for his thankless role as the town's chief law-enforcement officer by also getting to portray the lonely Hermit, a cameo he deliciously channels through the spirit of Nathan Lane.
Best of all is the finesse and dexterity of Roger Bart as Frederick. Bart created this title role on Broadway, but I have no doubt that the performance he's rendering in St. Louis is far superior to the one he gave on opening night in New York. Over the past two years, he has had time to settle into the role. He now appears to be having fun, and his laid-back delight is infectious. Bart is the anti-Brooks. He doesn't rub anything into our faces; he doesn't demand that we laugh. He sails through Young Frankenstein with an understated and efficient élan. As he conned me into believing that I was having a grand time, I found myself wondering how he'd fare as Harold Hill in The Music Man. Just then I overheard someone say, "I'd love to see him in an Anthony Newley show." Isn't that the highest compliment we can pay an actor — that we want to see him in other plays? For now, Bart alone is reason enough to see this one.