Where low jokes are concerned, you can rely on Mel Brooks to rise to the occasion. Based on his 1974 movie, the musical “Young Frankenstein” operates on the theory that nothing is funnier than something that is really stupid. So, prepare to give yourself a case of the giggles with a Toby’s Dinner Theatre production whose impressive individual parts combine to create a monstrously enjoyable evening.
Although this musical is not always as creatively sharp as Brooks’ musical treatment of his own “The Producers,” there is something to be said for the relentlessly silly, innuendo-laden and pun-filled goofy business in “Young Frankenstein.” All of us already know the core story about a scientist who makes a more or less human creature in his laboratory, meaning we’re all primed for the juvenile satire that ensues. The music and lyrics by Brooks and the book by Brooks and Thomas Meehan really go to town, as in a town in Transylvania, with this story about New York brain scientist Frederick Frankenstein responding to news of his grandfather Victor’s death by taking a trip to a land so locked into Old World customs that its inhabitants seem to live as if they were characters in a 1930s-vintage monster movie.
The deliberately cliched period trappings are an immediate source of fun, as are the Eastern European accents so thick that the dialogue becomes a linguistic adventure all its own. Brooks takes maximum advantage by having characters argue over how to pronounce each other’s names; and, of course, saying the name of the castle’s most intimidating staff member, Frau Blucher, prompts horses to vocally respond. And then there is The Monster, whose inarticulate grunts are guaranteed to make kids of all ages laugh out loud.
What makes the Toby’s production such a winning experience is that director and choreographer Mark Minnick oversees a cast that brings professional skill to a comic premise that easily might degenerate into amateur hour nonsense in less gifted hands. However dumb the jokes become, the actors sing and dance and otherwise fool around with all the talent you would expect from more sophisticated material.
Frederick Frankenstein, for example, is portrayed by Jeffrey Shankle with the sincerity to make us care about his intellectual seriousness as he launches into songs with such lyrics as “There's nothing like the brain. I’m insane about the brain.” Shankle keeps a straight face as the grotesque complications pile up in his grandfather’s laboratory, making funny situations even funnier. The Monster’s actions aren’t the only complications, by the way, because Frederick also has trouble with the women in his life.
His fiancee, Elizabeth, is an attractive social climber who seems to care about nice dresses and swank parties as much as anything else in her high-society life. While she remains behind in New York, Frederick becomes romantically involved with a very beautiful and very available Transylvanian household servant, Inga, who seems like a live-action cartoon suddenly brought into his life. As Elizabeth, Alicia Osborn really conveys the character’s self-absorbed qualities; and as Inga, Louisa Tringali wisely goes wild with the character’s stereotypical personality. If you’re looking for psychological nuance or character development here, you have stumbled into the wrong show.
Other characters are brought to life with just as much energetic silliness. As Frederick’s hunchbacked sidekick, Igor, David James has a great time with the running joke about the prominent bump on Igor’s back moving from left to right and, back again in the course of the show. “Young Frankenstein” often relies upon visual and verbal jokes that are subjected to seemingly endless variations. That’s why James emerges as one of the most consistently funny performers in this production, because he is constantly alert to the comic possibilities.
Christopher Kabara has the physical bulk and lumbering stage movement to make you believe that The Monster is doing its best to make sense of the world into which it has been delivered; Robert Biedermann plays several roles that showcase his comic versatility; Tess Rohan makes the most of Frau Blucher’s stern personality; David Bosley-Reynolds adroitly embodies the gruff authority that makes Inspector Kemp such a feared government official; and others in the large cast tackle an assortment of characters right out of central casting for a Frankenstein story.
That performing talent also shines thanks to the contributions of music director Ross Scott Rawlings, scenic and lighting designer David A. Hopkins and other crew members who seamlessly take us through a story that actually is rather complicated in terms of incorporating various musical styles within an assortment of locations. After all, this Frankenstein-inspired musical even has the entire cast singing and dancing to Irving Berlin’s “Puttin’ on the Ritz.”
“Young Frankenstein” runs through March 11 at Toby’s Dinner Theatre, 5900 Symphony Woods Road in Columbia. Call 410-730-8311 or go to tobysdinnertheatre.com