Photo | Kyle Meyer
Best Play or Performance of the Year: ‘Young Frankenstein’ at Joe Jefferson Playhouse
You might think directing a classic American comedy like “Young Frankenstein” would be easy enough. When you have Mel Brooks’ script to work with, then half the work is done, right?
“Any time you take a movie and turn it into a stage play, you can’t just go from one location to another like in a film,” director Gene Murrell said. “You have to work it out and there’s a lot of scene changes.”
Along with the other secret he identified long before casting – “It’s all in the timing” – Murrell and company managed it with aplomb. The evidence is in the numbers.
“We sold out every show, I think, but one,” Murrell said. That’s nine performances. With just over 300 seats, Joe Jefferson Playhouse is the biggest community theater in town.
Not bad considering it was Murrell’s second directorial job in Mobile after helming Mobile Theatre Guild’s 2018 rendition of “Assassins.”
“A director is only as good as the people he surrounds himself with and I had a fantastic staff,” Murrell said, deflecting praise.
He was quick to note the technical excellence of his lighting impresario Perry Stone. In particular, projection effects of the film logo, the Bavarian Alps, a thunderstorm and a forest ride added to the aforementioned scene settings. Murrell headed into the theater for what he dreaded would be an hours-long process starting late on a Friday night.
“[Stone] said ‘sit down, I have a surprise for you,’” Murrell said. “He started playing the overture and then the projection started and I was blown away. I made him play it like three times.”
Murrell thought Stone might have regretted the decision shortly.
“I was like, what else can we do? What else can we do?” Murrell said, laughing.
He was quick to nod to costumer Anna Merchant and her Austrian roots as perfectly suited. There was also an unanticipated and particular challenge matched for another local’s skills.
Watching video of the Broadway version, Murrell saw the 20-foot puppet of the Monster that emerges during one early song.
“I remember looking back and forth from the screen to the script and wondering where I was going to find that. We were referred to Nat Johnson, who makes all those street puppets downtown and she was a godsend,” Murrell said.
The cast was large at 30 to 40, and the director had locals in mind for the primary characters. Keller Bozeman was an immediate option for the Monster, owing not just to his size, but his dancing ability. As for his creator?
“I had no idea who Freddie was going to be and Mike Garand came in and owned it,” Murrell said.
Though Garand did stage and television work in South Carolina, Murrell said it was the actor’s first Mobile play.
“He loves ‘Young Frankenstein;’ loved this show,” Murrell said. “He was Freddie from the get-go. He was ready from day one.”
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