There’s a monster loose in midtown Mobile. In comedic jargon, he’s a confirmed “killer,” rampaging through Joe Jefferson Playhouse (11 S. Carlen St.) as they stage “Young Frankenstein” through Feb. 3.
It takes a lot of chutzpah to craft a stage musical from comedic genius Mel Brooks’ most acclaimed film — its Rotten Tomatoes score is 93 percent to the 90 percent “Blazing Saddles” boasts — but if anyone has nerve, it’s the indomitable Brooks. That’s why his classic creature-feature sendup became a 2007 stage hit that delighted international audiences.
It takes even more guts to mount it in a smaller market like Mobile. The ghosts of its silver screen predecessors — universally beloved and departed talents including Gene Wilder, Madeline Kahn, Marty Feldman and Peter Boyle — threaten to haunt every performance.
JJP makes it work. The humor is still so valid, the writing so delightfully silly and risqué that even though you know what’s coming, it still hits its mark. When Artifice caught the final dress rehearsal, there were 35 or more guests in the audience. The laughter and applause weren’t a mere gratuity or kindness, it was earned.
Directed by local stage veteran Gene Murrell, his other job as a radio personality shows in the music lilting through the PA while awaiting showtime. Themes from “Scooby Doo,” “Weird Science” and “The Munsters” along with The Doors’ “Strange Days,” The Cranberries’ “Zombie” and others set a playful mood for the madcap story.
The curtain opens on a rain-soaked funeral procession where a chorus of German peasants strip their mournful veneer and celebrate the death of mad scientist Victor von Frankenstein. Barney March provides explanation as the one-armed, one-legged, one-eyed Inspector Kemp.
Coincidentally, this is the second time March has filled a Brooks-created Teutonic role played by Kenneth Mars in film since the Mobile lawyer channeled Nazi playwright Franz Liebkind in JJP’s “The Producers.” Why let a German accent go to waste, eh?
We’re quickly introduced to Frankenstein heir Frederick, an American medical school instructor played by JJP newcomer Mike Garand. He eschews strict adherence to Wilder’s precedent, finding his own strengths and interpretations. Garand reveals the appropriately manic glee in his eyes when gazing at a brain under glass and deftly handles the tongue-twisting lyrics of his first number.
JJP neophyte Shanna Stoker is Elizabeth Benning, Frankenstein’s coquettish tease of a fiancée, and she brings both the big personality and abundant cleavage needed. She pulls off the perfect blend of ego and humor, utilizing a voice brimming with operatic drama and vibrato. Her persona bursts into scenes and her Act 2 entrance is hilariously perfect.
Once Frankenstein arrives in “the old country,” we get the essence of Brooks’ sensibilities. There’s the foreseeable pun on an old Big Band hit, then he meets Igor, played by Jake Coleman. It’s when they launch into the song and dance of “Together Again” that you fully feel the heartbeat of old vaudeville at the heart of Brooks’ work. It’s like the smuttiest Bugs Bunny cartoon you’ve ever seen.
Director Murrell told Artifice some seven months back the key to Brooks is all “timing” and he’s right. It’s a timing perfected in decades of traveling shows and Borscht Belt work, the stuff American comedy was nurtured on.
There’s another key, though and it’s perfected by Lesley Roberts as Frau Blucher (insert your own neighing and lightning now). It’s commitment. There is no “extra” with Brooks; the more you go all-in, the more comedy emerges.
Roberts’ show-stealing work is abundant in her bawdy number “He Vas My Boyfriend.” All the leads, including Kate Arrington’s Inga, are in fine voice.
As the Monster, Keller Bozeman is surprisingly nimble-footed. The big guy does an admirable job hoofing it in “Puttin’ On the Ritz.”
Kirk Corley shows off nice vocal chops as ancestor Victor in a dream sequence. That bit featured a surprise of gigantic proportion that was the night’s best visual delight.
As the Hermit, Harvie Jordan had an adept improv when a prop didn’t function as intended, a good save. I do wish his delivery of Gene Hackman’s originally ad-libbed “espresso” line had been clearer, though.
If there’s a drawback, it is the run time. Act 1 clocked in at around 90 minutes. Add an 18-minute intermission and by the time we finished an admittedly shorter Act 2, it was past 10 p.m. Maybe it’s the lengthy applause breaks.
Friday and Saturday curtain is at 7:30 p.m., Sunday matinee at 2 p.m.
For tickets, call 251-471-1534 or go to joejeffersonplayers.com.
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