Wanted: A Brain and A Funny Bone—YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN at Milburn Stone

by Ruth K. Brown

Anticipation is even more exciting when someone is waiting for the lights to come up on a Mel Brooks production than it ever was for ketchup. And while the ketchup adds tasty zest to whatever food is chosen, a Mel Brooks production satisfies a need to mock and laugh at ourselves with cleverness and zest. While critics gave the original Broadway production of YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN mixed reviews, Milburn Stone Theatre (MST) at Cecil College in North East, MD, provided their opening night audience with a riotous, colorful and zesty production.

Director, Rory Donovan, who has been on stage as The Monster in a YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN national touring company, brought with him energy and panache. His direction formed a tight unit of main characters who worked very well together. Donovan’s combining of them with the raucous, rowdy and well coordinated ensemble heightened the initial energy and brought musical numbers to effervescent heights. Donovan and Bob Denton, Scenic Designer, achieved the desired effects of classroom, castle, laboratory, and Transylvania with minimal pieces and well choreographed set changes that never let the audience forget their last laugh before the next one was already there.

Speaking of choreography, Jackie Kappus added to the original Susan Stroman steps working with everyone on stage to achieve fluid movements and individual magic moments. Between the lightning and electrical laboratory effects, Lighting Designer, William A. Price III, gave quite a workout to the new lighting system at MST. Price also was effective in using area lighting as characters moved from one scene into another. Audiences who are at all familiar with the Mel Brooks film of the same name came to the theatre with expectations. Sound Designer, Terry Edwards, gave everyone the bumps and grinds of the myriad double entendres, the storm and life-bringing thunder and, of course, the horses. You HAVE to see the show to understand about the horses, and there will be no spoiler alert in this review. Musical Director, Shane Jensen, had taped music to use and once again, the MST sound mixing worked against some of the cleverest of Brooks’ pair-naming work in the song “The Brain” and others. Aficionados of Brooks films want the reward of clever lyrics and myriad sexual innuendos, which are the hallmarks of his work. While the microphone use by almost everyone helped with spoken scenes, the songs were often less appreciated than they could have been as they were less heard than they could have been.

Character expectations were always met in this production of YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN. The rubber-faced Adam J. Wahlberg did a stellar job in selling the transition from the nerdy doctor wanting only to develop the new name of Frankenstein (pronounced fraNGken-steen) to the motivated and newly successful scientist so worthy of the old family name Frankenstein (pronounced fraNGken-stine). Wahlberg’s periodic verbal homage to Gene Wilder as the original doctor in the 1974 film was well done and much appreciated. His litheness and easy use of the stage were impressive and helped a great deal to keep the overall pace moving. Wahlberg’s interactions with both Kati Donovan as Elizabeth Benning and Shereen Ahmed as Inga were hilarious as he slowly allows Dr. Frankenstein to pursue and ultimately win the woman he so desperately wants. Donovan does a fine job with Elizabeth as the manipulative conniver looking only to please herself, while Ahmed combines naivete and much sexuality as Inga. Both the scenes of good-bye with Donovan and the wagon ride with Ahmed will not be easily forgotten. Igor, played by Charles Johnson, was a sheer delight. His performance was reminiscent of Marty Feldman from the film, but Johnson imbued his character with variations that made watching him interesting and unexpected. As the malevolent Frau Blucher, Nance Weber, combined physical and verbal comedy to give us a tour de force for her role in this production. And, what would a performance of YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN be without the Monster? Ryan Wagner gave us a frighteningly and amusingly vulnerable Monster. Wagner’s early Monster grunts and growls were delivered with inarticulate gusto while Wagner then makes the later Noel Coward-esque repartee seem similarly appropriate. Special kudos to both Wagner and “his shadow” along with Kappus as the dance portion of the “Puttin on the Ritz” number handled with the lighted scrim was expertly done pleasing the audience tremendously.

As stated above, the ensemble worked together both when on-stage supporting a scene and off-stage when moving set pieces. A little something to consider, audience members sitting on the right side of the auditorium got a good look at actors arriving backstage and effects being assembled before their entry. It was distracting … maybe a flat would work to mask this much needed area but preserve the fourth wall for the audience.

Expectations were met easily. The audience roared again and again as they appreciated either what they remembered from the film coming back to them or something new they could freshly appreciate. YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN is a show well worth attending … your sides will hurt by the time you leave. A Mel Brooks comedy well done! Congrats to all who worked on this one!

Book by: Mel Brooks and Thomas Meehan
Music and Lyrics by: Mel Brooks
Directed by: Rory Donovan
February 21 – March 2, 2014
Milburn Stone Theatre
Cecil Community College
One Seahawk Drive
North East, MD 21901
Box Office Phone: 410-387-1037


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