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Electric Youth

Theater Review: JCC's "Young Frankenstein" 

Electric Youth

A few years back, JCC Centerstage presented "Mel Brooks' The Producers." The show packed the house and in some ways raised the bar for what audiences could expect from a splashy, modern musical put on by a community theater. The JCC is currently presenting Brooks' follow-up show, a musical adaptation of the actor-writer-director's 1974 comedy film "Young Frankenstein." Although the source material isn't as strong as "The Producers," or as natural a fit for a musical, "Young Frankenstein" is still a ton of fun. The cast and crew involved in the JCC production throw themselves fully into the show and largely overcome its inherent weaknesses.

The plot follows Brooks' original film, just stuffed -- and I really mean stuffed -- with song-and-dance numbers. Dr. Frederick Frankenstein is a successful medical lecturer in New York City who cringes whenever anyone brings up his infamous family and its monster-making background. As such, Frederick is less than pleased to be summoned to Transylvania to handle the estate of his recently deceased grandfather. Once there, he is quickly conscripted into the family business by humpbacked henchman Igor, house- and secret-keeper Frau Blucher (*horse whinny*), and lusty yodeling lab assistant Inga. Straight-laced Frederick discovers that he has some facility at the whole mad-scientist trade, the Transylvania townspeople are Not Having It, and Frederick's prissy New York fiancée makes a surprise trans-Atlantic trip. In between there is ample singing and multiple kicklines and jazz squares.

"Young Frankenstein" is a heavier show than "The Producers," and not because of its horror-tinged subject matter. It lacks a lightness in its storytelling, at times plodding much like the creature that shambles throughout its second act. That is not a fault of the JCC production -- it was the same in the national tour of the show that came to the Auditorium Theatre a few years back. At times, especially in the first act, the show feels like a string of musical numbers that barely advance the plot. But those musical numbers are also where the show hits its highs.

Danny Hoskins directs the JCC production, and does an excellent job wrangling a large cast featuring more than two dozen performers. That's also true for choreographer Meggins Kelley, vocal director Sarah Staebell, and orchestra director Aaron Staebell. There are multiple full-ensemble numbers in this show, and by and large the chorus sounds fantastic and takes on a wide array of dance steps, including some jumps and flips. It is an ambitious undertaking that speaks highly of the directors and the performers. Even if the big group numbers don't always go off without a hitch (for example, the tap sequence during "Puttin' on the Ritz" lacked the crispness that practically defines the artform), you have to respect the talent and rehearsal that obviously went into the process.

The lead actors all turn in truly impressive work. John Winter plays the main role of Frederick Frankenstein. While he does not have the strongest singing voice, he is still solid in his musical numbers -- and very good in the tricky syncopated passages in early songs like "The Brain." He excels at the straight-man role, and keeps the show centered while the zany second bananas peel all around him.

Chief among them is Jeffrey Andrews, who puts the Prancersice lady to shame as the light-footed Igor. Andrews is a supremely gifted comedian, and this show utilizes all of his strengths. He shows off his improv chops, his comic timing, his inventive physical delivery. Andrews doesn't need to say anything; he steals scenes based solely on his reactions. He's also a very strong singer.

Kerry Young mines Frau Blucher (*horse whinny*) for maximum laughs. Young also has a strong improv background, and it shows. As a singer, she completely owns her big crowd-pleasing number, "He Vas My Boyfriend." Lani Toyama is a delight as Inga. She delivers a stunning yodel solo (yes, really) in "Roll in the Hay" and generally sings and dances like a dream.

Frederick's fiancée Elizabeth Bennett is absent for the majority of the show, which is a shame because Mary Tiballi Hoffman is a hoot whenever she's on stage. She kills it in the international cocktease anthem, "Please Don't Touch Me," and is simultaneously both bubbly and pouty in the second act. Rusty Allen makes the most of his big "Mr. Cellophane" moment as the Hermit ("Please Send Me Someone") but underplays village idiot Ziggy to the point that most of his punchlines simply don't land.

On the whole, "Young Frankenstein" is terrific showcase of local talent. But note that there are only a few performances left, and according to the JCC tickets are largely sold out for the remainder of the run.

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