By MCN Editor

The Theater Ate My Show!

Ever hear someone talk about a theater actor “playing to the back row?” Last night, playing to the back row only reached the front row on Broadway.
Almost exactly three months after having visited Mel Brooks’ new musical of an old movie, Young Frankenstein, in Seattle, we returned to the show on Broadway to see what changes had or had not been made. Expectations were that there would be minimal adjusting, given that a few who have seen it in both venues indicated that Mr. Brooks, Mr. Meehan (his co-writer on the book), and director Susan Stroman had not changed much from Seattle. More striking were the pans of the show coming from various corners of erudite New York.
The rough reality is… the critics are not insane or recklessly brutal. The show, which I thought was at about 80%/85% in Seattle has actually been improved in some areas. But what critics in NY could not have known, having not been to Seattle, is that the problem with Young Frankenstein is not so much the show… it’s the theater.
I could understand harsh reviews in light of the ubiquitousness of The Producers and the inevitability of backlash. But the harshness was overwhelming. And now I know… the stage is overwhelming.
There was talk about the Hilton Theater being a frickin’ barn when Brooks & Co decided to book that theater instead of the St James, where The Producers played so well. But you can’t begin to understand just how delicate the balance of a show and a theater unless you have witnessed this abuse to one of the great physical stage productions I have ever witnessed… reduced to a wailing infant in the massive bosom of this hall. It was stunning.
I don’t know the actual dimensions, but it seemed that the stage was 30 feet wider, 20 feet deeper, that the front of the set was set 10 feet further away from the front row of the theater, and that the proscenium was at least 15 feet higher than in Seattle. The gut feeling was like watching The Tonys set in Radio City Music Hall, which is so much bigger than any stage for most any show on Broadway… or like a touring company of a Broadway show, which play multi-purpose venues that hold over 2000 people so that they can make a mint when a show comes to town for a week or two. (I grew up with the Theater of Performing Arts in Miami Beach, which was so huge that it became a real problem and they had to design ways to cut off large portions of the theater when straight plays came to town.)
It is also not unlike watching a wide-screen movie on a 15” television.
As a result, the one performance that I really felt was too big and unsophisticated for the Seattle run, Andrea Martin’s, is now the absolute showstopper… because she is the only one big enough – and that includes The Monster – to play to the back row effectively. Everyone else, as the reviews keep saying, is lost on that damned stage. Beautiful subtle bits that the audience – and I – loved in Seattle have that touring company hackneyed feel now… not because of the performances, but because of the stage swallowing the subtleties. And the modern convention of amplifying everything makes it worse, because now everyone sounds like they are in this giant television and we are hearing the audio from speakers.
There were some positive changes. Megan Mullally stopped trying quite so hard with the through-the-nose accent and lets loose while belting… to great effect. The first act curtain is much stronger than it was. Some of the chorus stuff was cut down. And most effectively, the narrowed the “Join The Family Business” number and, it seems, hired a stronger performer – or at least gave him more room to be a fuller character – to Victor Frankenstein, played her by Kevin Ligon. It makes a big difference.
But the pain of watching stuff that worked so well get lost on that stage… agony. Please, please, please Mr. Brooks… spend whatever it costs and move the show to another house that won’t swallow it whole! You will be paid back with extra years – really, years – of patronage.
And though I hate experiential journalism, I will offer my sister, who lives in the Washington, D.C. area and comes to New York on package tours a few times a year. Her tastes are not terribly sophisticated… this show is PERFECT for her. But she is already wondering, based on the reviews, if it is a good choice. And I have to say, if I didn’t know what I had seen, I would be questioning whether it was worth seeing. When Fredrick and Inga roll, roll, roll in the hay, the moment is true Broadway magic. But not anymore. It is a great song, great performance, great choreography down to the horses, a great visual… and lost on the massive stage of the Hilton. (One cannot be redundant on this point.)
Even the curtain for the show, which is the image from the film of the Frankenstein castle on the hill… it was beautiful in Seattle and looks like crap here. Why? Well, one of the functional problems of a space that large is lighting needs to be brighter. And you see it all through the show. You are looking at big lights trying to do their work… work you are only supposed to see subconsciously. And it’s like filling a cavern.
I have to admit… at first I thought the actors were bored already, which would be shocking so early in a run. But what they were trying to do is to connect… in any way, connect, like they did in Seattle. So Roger Bart really is SCREAMING all of the time… Christopher Fitzgerald lovely vaudeville stuff becomes him jumping up and down to get your attention, Sutton Foster, lanky and lusty, is barely a prop now, and Shuler Hensley as The Monster is shockingly unimposing.
Move the show. Or it will not be alive, alive half as long as audiences would like it to be. In fact, it may be a better road show than a Broadway show… and it deserves better. It’s not the best show ever. But it’s a lot better than this.

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