by Byron Woods
3½ stars out of 5
Durham Performing Arts Center
Through Dec. 12
A CHRISTMAS CAROL
3 stars out of 5
Theatre in the Park
Through Dec. 15
It’s “Is it good enough? ”
Take the professional touring version of YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN. Under the circumstances, I’m tempted to follow that sentence with the Youngman-esque rejoinder, “Please.”
Clearly the musical, based on comedian Mel Brooks’ landmark 1974 send-up of horror films, is a haunted work. Unfortunately, what it’s mainly haunted by is its predecessor: THE PRODUCERS, Brooks’ previous landmark musical based on his 1968 backstage farce of a film. (For anyone who’s, um, forgotten, that production was an anchor on Broadway for six years, from 2001 to 2007.)
YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN's apologists have pointed out, with some merit, that after the critical and commercial zenith of THE PRODUCERS, anything less than Einstein’s unified fields on stage was going to qualify as a comedown. Which, they assert, is how the mere 16 months that Brooks’ monster movie meshugas lingered on Broadway somehow became so much chopped liver: by comparison. By itself, the reasoning goes, it’s a perfectly fine piece.
None of which alters my main point, which is this: At this juncture, no ticket buyer is walking into Durham Performing Arts Center under the illusion that YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN is the equal of THE PRODUCERS — or walking out, shocked (shocked!) to learn it isn’t. In our critical culture, that question was effectively addressed a little over three years ago; it’s something of a waste of storage media for me to pretend it wasn't.
Which leaves the question I’m called to answer here, instead: Is it good enough?
The answer probably lies on a sliding scale: The more you’ve seen—and loved—the original film, the less likely you’ll probably be satisfied with this show.
I'm prepared to call it unavoidable that even the most sympathetic staging would sacrifice much of the intimacy in Gerald Hirschfeld’s striking original black and white cinematography. In comparison, the stage version is a significantly more distant—and distancing—affair.
But too frequently Brooks’ original songs here are just too dilatory, further diluting the heady atmosphere of the original. For every song that memorably advances characters and plot—like “Deep Love,” the addled second-act monster/maiden tribute to, um, physical attraction, or “Listen to Your Heart,” a somewhat more circumspect reflection on love’s consolations—three or four seem to be marking time with little more than boilerplate verse.
Overall, however, the show’s score just seems extended and thin. And the breathless pace employed on opening night in Durham helped matters not at all. Repeatedly, we got the sense that works like Frau Blucher’s Transylvanian torch song, “He Vas My Boyfriend,” and the hypothetically madcap Elizabeth’s safe sex plea, “Please Don’t Touch Me” could have been a lot funnier if the production had just slowed down long enough for the jokes—and the audience—to actually breathe.
The one certifiable improvement the live show makes on the film is in the extended “Puttin’ on the Ritz” sequence in Act Two. Susan Stroman’s direction and choreography open up the scene, with delicious solos including a scat-singing—okay, make that scat-yowling—Monster.
It’s a thankless task to ask live actors to trump the iconic performances of Gene Wilder, Marty Feldman, Terri Garr and Madeleine Kahn. Actor Christopher Ryan’s game, but occasionally seems stuck in close-up acting on a big theater stage as an occasionally manic Frederick Frankenstein. Cory English seems much more at home and inventive as he delightfully shifts between takes on Feldman and ROCKY HORROR rocker Richard O’Brien in full-tilt mode as the doctor’s wise-guy assistant, Igor. Joanna Glushak digs into Frau Blucher’s role with relish, while Janine Devita and Synthia Link suitably outfit the Doctors two girlfriends, Elizabeth and Inga.
Actor Preston Truman Boyd gives his Monster a winning sense of bewilderment at all the fuss being made about him, in a production whose “good” is sometimes actually pretty good, and occasionally excellent. But is it good enough? You’ll have to be the judge.
The premature succession in the lead role of Theatre in the Park’s production of A CHRISTMAS CAROL—from artistic director Ira David Wood III to his 26-year-old son, Ira David Wood IV, when a hospital stay knocked his father out of the show—raises the same question about the 36th annual running of this holiday classic.
As previously observed, this show is basically the ultimate in known commodities on the local theater scene: a two-hour-plus marathon of old-school shtick and holiday ham, lovingly carved before a yearly audience numbering somewhere in the low five figures.
Its yearly update of topical one-liners (this year including references to the twin scourges, bedbugs—and Dancing with the Stars ) is as predictable by now as its soundtrack bloated with too many same-sounding sentiments. (And yes, the traditional CHRISTMAS CAROL drinking game—in which participants take a shot whenever anyone says “Christmas comes but once a year”—will still have you in your cups well before the finale.)
But with the change at the top, the question remains: Is it good enough? Is Ira IV up to filling David III's shoes in the role of Scrooge?
We say almost. But not entirely.
If at first Ira seemed a little thin or uncomfortable in his father's role, you'd also have to observe that he was rolling with the punchlines well before the end of opening night in Raleigh. But Ira's singing voice really doesn’t match up to his father’s—not with repeated and noticeable pitch problems and a conspicuously thinner tone, both of which dogged him throughout opening night.
Like his father before him, Ira's eastern North Carolina twang is as piquant and down-home as that region's barbecue sauce. His ability to stop dead on a dime in the midst of much foolishness and deliver a cutting riposte similarly suggests a genetic influence.
Still, Ira's got some growing to do before he fully fleshes out his father's form. Thankfully, it seems he's going to have some time to do just that.