Yesit shouldn’t have happened like this. The young Frankenstein, director Alexander Berlage’s third musical for Sydney’s Hayes Theater – an influential home for musical theater innovation in Australia – was due to open in November 2020. The creative team began sketching their vision for the play in March.
Then Covid-19 hit and everything got dark.
How do you find harmony in the story of the monster and the repressed society that gives birth to it when your monsters have been unseen for months, traveling in air particles and cutting us off from the world? Suddenly the landscape has changed, and art that is both entertainment and commentary – Berlage’s specialty – has to move with it. Are you calming your audience or challenging them?
Berlage became an instant sensation with the first shows for Hayes – returning his teeth to the Broadway adaptation of John Waters ’Cry-Baby, diluted with saccharin and seriousness; and distorting real targets in American Psycho. Berlage, in his still young career that previously consisted of lighting design and feature directing, quickly showed a skilful hand in revitalizing and re-examining cult films through a shrewd queer – and shamelessly camp – lens. The musical by Mel Brooks and Thomas Meehan – based on the 1974 film of the same name by Brooks and Gene Wilders – Young Frankenstein seems a natural next step, especially as a vessel for resolving moral panic and collective anxiety.
But it also presents a new challenge: young Frankenstein is already firmly conceived as a comedy. The new release requires freshness without excessive comic upgrades. That’s tricky to say the least.
The show is about the grandson of the famous Dr. Frankenstein, whose reanimated invention of the corpse became the monster that destroyed the village. Frederick (Matthew Backer) is dedicated to pure science; he cannot bear to be bound to the family heirloom. But when his grandfather dies, he has to travel to Transylvania and once he follows in those footsteps, he starts to look very attractive …
This is a work obsessed with the anxiety of the collective community, done in a time of anxiety of the collective community. How do you have a perspective for new fears to explore on stage while still living in them? The answer for Berlage and his team came with big gags and bigger hit lines. Many of these laughs still land – some of them spectacularly well – but they fall victim to nuance and without a fierce insightful meta-comment that could give the laughter even more power.
And there’s another concern: the show opens with a series of warnings, mostly stupid – on green, fake cigarettes and dubious European accents – but it also includes flashing – and you’ll miss – confirmation of attempts to correct outdated and capable jokes from the original text. It’s a clever approach and a necessary framework: this is a show that crosses the foot across the line from the kicking ball to the insult with ready to leave. But while it’s good to laugh, hanging an eyeshadow on a problem (or putting a blind hermit, whose blindness is a joke, in a hermit costume that includes new glasses with spring-loaded eyeballs) doesn’t mean an excuse or an adequate solution to the problem.
It may be impossible to solve the job, but Berlage is best off dealing with the problem with all his heart, not trying to bury it in sight.
That being said, production can be loved a lot. The cartoon inspired by Yvette Lee’s cartoon pauses brilliantly, and Backer’s central performance is finely watched and full of full unspoken passions. He is the clearest account of the central thesis of Berlage’s resuscitation: that restrained feelings create harm. And Backer makes the extremely demanding role seem effortless; he has the time of a comedian and the voice of a leading man, and keeps the show together.
The ensemble, too, shines with stars: Olivia Charalambous and Amy Hack with pleasure playing Transylvanian villagers breaking the fourth wall; Shannon Dooley takes on the role created for Megan Mullally in the opposite but equally camp direction; Nick Eynaud’s monster gives us a glimpse of the heart; Inga Ben Gerrarda is cool sexy and infinitely chic, a combination that basically feels weird; Luke Leong-Tay amplifies the comic tempo by enabling Igor; and Lucia Mastrantone merrily disappeared as hostess of Frankenstein Castle.
Isabel Hudson’s scene is clever, adding an Escher-esque dimension to Hayes ’tiny stage, and Mason Browne continues to surpass the dizzying number of costumes that add up to high camp, drawing references from drag and kick to Vivienne Westwood and refined punk. Andrew Worboys is directing a cheeky band that joked and keeps the show moving.
Berlage’s sharp eye for aesthetics turns the show into a fun experience by default – lights (Trenta Suidgeest) are a dream, and Berlage seems to think in color and light as much as concepts – but it’s hard not to want the intellectual depth it was so satisfying in his the previous two musicals.
Like the monster itself, you can create a whole new reality by tearing something apart and reassembling it. This production hasn’t rearranged the guts to touch the sublime and hurried subterfuge of outdated jokes under the rug, instead of provoking them, but it still gets its hands dirty enough to offer us some good things: belly laughter and camping.
• Young Frankenstein is at the Hayes Theater in Sydney until March 20th