Mel Brooks is already quoted on the ads for Young Frankenstein, his own musical adaptation of his cult 1974 retro comedy Young Frankenstein saying, "I think, modestly speaking, it will be sensational." And he is, as it turns out, completely right.
I laughed all the way through Young Frankenstein — it’s stupendously silly and shameless all the way through, too, but that’s also entirely the point. It's sole function is to be a laughter generator; and as such, it is thoroughly successful, as I just couldn't stop laughing.
I might caution that laughter, of course, is a very personal thing, and you may not laugh as hard as I did. But it isn't for lack of trying on everyone's parts here, from Brooks, of course, who in addition to co-writing the book with Thomas Meehan (having originally co-written the film with its star Gene Wilder) has also written the music and lyrics, to director/choreographer Susan Stroman who has brought it with such a flourish to the stage, her brilliant design team (led by set designer Beouwulf Boritt and costume designer William Ivey Long) and fabulous London cast.
Stroman also previously shepherded Brooks's 2001 adaptation of his 1967 film The Producers to the Broadway stage, and that remains one of the laugh-out-loud funniest musicals I've ever seen. This sequel, by comparison, failed to match the Broadway success of that show when it first premiered in New York in 2007, swamped in a theatre (the Hilton on west 42nd Street, now the Lyric, and one of the biggest on Broadway) that was not conducive to comedy. But now for its West End premiere, it has been brilliantly re-sized to the far more intimate Garrick Theatre, and the laughs have got correspondingly bigger, broader and warmer.
Here is a show in a vaudevillian music hall tradition that's very legible to British audiences, steeped as we are in pantomime, yet also executed with real Broadway theatrical aplomb.
As a relative of the original Dr Frankenstein, who is himself Dean of anatomy at at American school of medicine, inherits his Transylvania mansion, he attempts to pick up where his predecessor left off and resurrect a dead man after transplanting an impressive brain into him. Except, of course, he ends up putting an abnormal specimen into the corpse instead, who when he awakens is a green-hued monster.
This is not the only musical in town featuring a green lead actor; but it's a whole lot more fun than Wicked. (There's a nice Wicked connection, too, with the presence in the cast of the mellifluous Dianne Pilkington, a long-time Glinda in the West End of that show, who here plays Dr Frankenstein's fiancee). The show is a comic tour-de-force for the entire cast, led with serious comic chops (and stylish singing and dancing credentials, too) by Hadley Fraser as Frankenstein, whose has long been a dynamic leading man in the West End of shows from Les Miserables (in which he has progressed from Marius to Javert) to City of Angels, but here comes into his own with a sensational display of dead-pan humour and timing.
There's also leggy support from the exceptional dancer Summer Strallen as Inga, who becomes his Transylvanian assistant; and British TV and stage comedy favourites Lesley Joseph and Ross Noble who regularly threaten to steal the show as Frau Blucher and Igor respectively, inheriting the comic mantles of Cloris Leachman and Marty Feldman from the film but making them their own. And Shuler Hensley - a sole hold-over from the original Broadway cast - reprises his performances as the Monster with both dignity and humour.
Stroman previously brought another Broadway musical The Scottsboro Boys to the Garrick in 2014, one of the most affecting and heartrending shows of the century so far. This show is in an entirely different register, proving her incredible versatility. But if that show proved, in the end, to be a hard sell, success for this one is surely and deservedly guaranteed.
Young Frankenstein Tickets, at the Garrick Theatre until 10th February 2018, are available now.
What the press said...
"This new production of Mel Brooks’s musical about everyone’s favourite mad scientist is a hoot, not to mention a howl, at least when our where-wolves are around." - Ann Tremenan, The Times (four stars)
"I’m awarding it a “mere” four stars because I don’t think audiences should go in over-expectant, but I expect the majority to hand it that extra star themselves on the way out. Very silly and entirely welcome." - Dominic Cavendish, The Telegraph (four stars)
"For this critic it's every bit as good as The Producers, if not better than, its predecessor in that it piles on the gags even more relentlessly and wittily parodies musicals past and present." Michael Billington, The Guardian (four stars)