No comedian gets to his inner child faster, or stays longer, than Mel Brooks.
“There are no rules,” says the self-annointed psychiatrist in Brooks’s 2000-Year-old Man album. “A hundred years from now, they’ll decide what was ethical, and what was fooling around.”
For his movies and musicals, Brooks follows two rules: turn expectations inside-out; and resort to humor so blue its cobalt.
When we first meet Dr. Frederick Frankenstein – pronounced “Fronk-en-steen” to break from his mad-scientist grandfather Victor- he sings a song that recalls “There is Nothing Like a Dame,” in South Pacific. Only the good doctor changes dame to “brain,” and instead of randy swabbies, the large cast, donning white smocks, does a Busby Berkeley number around a lump of gray matter encased in glass.
When Frederick readies to leave for Transylvania, he bids good-bye to his lady fair, Elizabeth. Now surely passion would flare and blaze for a parting of such sweet sorrow. Not so. Elizabeth (the brilliant Jessica Bernard) belts out “Please Don’t Touch Me” with the flaming, hands-off paranoia of a germaphobe.
And then there’s that moment when Elizabeth tells the Hulk-like, brain-dead monster, “a penny for your thoughts.”
Or, for that matter, when Igor (the hilarious Jamie Torcellini, who can’t remember which side his hump should go)) steals a brain for the monster then accidentally squishes it – twice.
The thing about Brooks’ sub-Vaudeville humor, which other librettists would fear to pen: much of the laughter comes from an impish game he plays with you. Oh no, you sense, he wouldn’t say THAT! It’s so un-PC. Oops! Darn if he didn’t (another factor: maybe Brooks knows his audience, and its inner child, to the core).
Young Frankenstein is based on the 1974 movie. It suffers from the need to be linear: account for every scene, detail, and throwaway one liner – where live theater, especially musicals, can be much more vertical and thrives on compression. The show runs long, and Act two fumbles to find its way. But the excellent Moonlight production is also long on talent.
As Frederick Frankenstein, talented Larry Raben wears a curly gold mop of hair (a la Gene Wilder in the movie) but he never competes with the cinematic icon. Raben simply plays Frederick, beautifully and, in tune with Brooks’ humor, irrepressibly.
Tracy Lore has a lark as severe, lock-stepping Frau Blucher. After a while, even her entrances get laughs. Clear-voiced Noelle Marion (Inga) concludes one song by doing the splits! Moonlight mainstay Randall S. Hickman does the show’s centerpiece when his Monster goes “Puttin’ On The Ritz” with the entire ensemble (the only downside of the spectacular scene: when compared to Irving Berlin, Brooks’s music and lyrics are ringy-dingy and sound pretty much the same).
Credit to director/choreographer Matthew J. Vargo, to co-musical directors Kenneth Gammie and Randi Rudolph, their 13-piece, spot-on orchestra, and technical coordinator Justin A. M.M. Hall. Moonlight is using sets and properties from the Broadway touring show: videos that sprocket electrical energy, a lab that blinks in different colors, and backgrounds so real they look like drops. No wait. Aren’t they? It’s hard to tell for sure.