Can lightning strike twice? The Producers, Mel Brooks's musicalized version of his 1967 film comedy, was an out-of-the-blue, ain't-Broadway-grand surprise when it opened in the spring of 2001. A septuagenarian funnyman adapts one of his old movies for the stage, writes the songs himself, indulges all his vulgar-vaudevillian comic impulses, and shows the Broadway pros how to do it what could be more thrilling? And so, when Brooks went back to his film archives to perform the same trick with Young Frankenstein, his horror-movie spoof from 1974, the buzz on Broadway was that another can't-miss hit was on the way.
Well, the sparks surely fly in Young Frankenstein's oversized '30s-horror-film stage laboratory. But the show, which opened Thursday night at Broadway's Hilton Theatre, is missing much of the electricity that made The Producers such a monster hit.
What went wrong? A few theories.
Start with the source material. Young Frankenstein, Brooks's update of Mary Shelley's horror tale, in which the monster-maker's grandson returns to Transylvania and gets pulled back into the family business, probably has more laughs, and more fondly remembered bits, than any film in the Brooks canon. And Brooks (working again with his Producers writing collaborator Tom Meehan) has faithfully reproduced most of them on stage: Igor and his wandering hump; the steely Frau Blucher, whose very name incites the horses; the monster's visit to the cabin of a kindly blind man who turns into a bumbling firebug.
The difference is that The Producers had a solid, even ingenious, comic storyline about a Broadway producer who sets out to create a bomb show so he can run off with all the investors' money. Young Frankenstein is, by contrast, mainly a series of goofs on old horror-movie clichés gags that don't resonate as well on stage, and that lack the comic propulsion that keeps The Producers moving along. That puts a lot more burden on the usual Brooksian jokes about big knockers and small penises which, as a result, seem more desperate this time around. The Producers was comedy; Young Frankenstein is shtick.
Next, the songs. In The Producers, perhaps the greatest example of beginner's luck in Broadway songwriting history, Brooks's simplistic tunemaking managed to stick in your head ("I wan-na be a pro-du-cer") in a way that richer and more ambitious Broadway scores don't. The numbers in Young Frankenstein seem more generic, off-the-rack items: a tongue-in-cheek buddy duet for the doctor and Igor, "Together Again (for the First Time)"; a Dietrich send-up for Frau Blucher, "He Vas My Boyfriend"; a predictable parody of '30s dance crazes, "Transylvania Mania."
Director-choreographer Susan Stroman, meanwhile, seems to have used up most of her best ideas in The Producers. There's nothing in Young Frankenstein that comes close to, say, the chorus of old ladies doing time steps with their walkers, not to mention the "Springtime for Hitler" extravaganza. The big "Puttin' on the Ritz" number, with the monster (Shuler Hensley) stepping out in top hat and wails, comes the closest. But give Irving Berlin a lot of the credit with a small nod to Astaire's "Bojangles in Harlem" number from Swingtime.
Then there's the cast. I saw The Producers three times, with three different sets of stars, and it became abundantly clear how much Nathan Lane, the original Max Bialystock, brought to the show, milking every line for laughs that even Brooks may not have known were there. This time, Brooks makes do with an array of competent Broadway vets. Roger Bart (the gay assistant in The Producers) is likable, but only that, as Dr. Frankenstein. Sutton Foster, one of Broadway's song-and-dance wonders, seems to be slumming as the Swedish bombshell Inga, a part any one of a dozen actresses could have played. The dizzy Megan Mullally (of Will and Grace) seems wrong as the doctor's uptight fiancé. Andrea Martin, that SCTV pro, is probably best in show with her funny, full-throated turn as Frau Blucher. Still, Young Frankenstein's one advantage over The Producers is that none of them is irreplaceable.
I may be too harsh. If The Producers had never existed, Young Frankenstein would be a reasonably entertaining addition to Broadway's fall season and it may yet be a big hit. But we have a right to higher standards. Mel Brooks is no longer the inspired amateur. Now he's a Broadway monster, repeating himself.