BY SANDY STAGGS
Asheville Community Theatre opened its 70th season this weekend with the horror comedy “Young Frankenstein” in a side-splitting, bladder-inducing production that exudes professional-grade theatre from top hats to bottom.
Based on Mel Brooks’ classic film spoof of the Frankenstein horror movies, “Young Frankenstein” is almost exactly like the movie, but with new songs and lyrics by Brooks and a book penned with Thomas Meehan. The plot is the same: Dr. Frederick von Frankenstein (pronounced “Fronk-en-steen” and played by the enticingly funny Mark Jones) is a brain surgeon — now at the Johns, Miriam and Anthony Hopkins School of Medicine — and has distanced himself from the infamous work of his ancestors. That is, until he discovers his grandfather’s lab journal at his family’s estate in Transylvania Heights.
And what a mansion it is! Conceived by 26-year-old Jill Summers, this magnificent set design features a full-scale Frankenstein stone castle with a centerpiece that reverses for the laboratory replete with built-in lighting and special effects by Rob Bowen. The faux-stone painting is exquisite and the sliding set pieces (the castle doors, forest, etc.) on the main stage and reversible sets on the two side stages allow for quick segues crucial in a story like “Young Frankenstein” that changes locations so much. The tilting tab table and the lightning and electricity waves are excellent touches, but the grand scale of the lab side pieces allow for even more boundless possibilities of spectacle. BRAVO Ms. Summers and Mr. Bowen!
And the stellar cast members make worthy inhabitants of this glorious set. Jones commands equal hilarity as the young scientist and talent as a vocalist in songs like “The Brain” (with tongue-twisting lyrics a la Danny Kaye); a vaudeville-style duet “Together Again” with Igor (the rollicking David Fine who channels Carol Channing’s vibrato in this number and gives the most committed performance in the show); and, of course, Irving Berlin’s “Puttin’ On The Ritz” in the same song-and-dance segment from the film in top hats and tails with the revived corpse-turned-entertainer Monster (Waylon Wood).
Mel Brooks fans may be surprised to see how much naughtier the musical is than the film, and many of the best lines and dirtiest songs are bestowed upon the ladies. As the fiancée Elizabeth, Nana Hosmer Griffin is superb and thrives in her three solos, milking every suggestive line: her chastity is preserved in “Please Don’t Touch Me,” “Surprise” is indeed a surprise and “Deep Love” (you can use your imagination on that one) is divine, especially in the “Bride of Frankenstein” wig, just one of Stephen Veltman’s lovely creations.
As Inga, the sexy lab assistant with a penchant for yodeling, Calintha Briggs is a fine comedic actress and superlative singer in the hysterical “Roll In The Hay.” And Carol Duermit wins the audience favorite prize as the violin-playing Frau Blucher. Her uproarious rendition of “He Vas My Boyfriend” contained the longest-sustained note of the evening and won the hearts and funny bones of everyone in the theatre.
Other entertaining performances include Strother Stingley in dual roles as the blind hermit (“Please Send Me Someone”) and as Frankenstein’s grandfather who comes to life from an oil painting in “Join the Family Business.” Rock Eblen is delightful as Inspector Hans Kemp (enhanced by mechanical sound effects for his arm and leg.) and as Ziggy the town idiot, Frank Salvo is a hoot especially when he waves at the grave robbers passing behind an angry mob of Transylvanians ready to hang the good doctor.
The costumes by Ida are all top-notch from Jones’ lab goggles from “Twelve Monkeys” to the peasant clothing for the villagers and the tattered and dirty suit that the Monster wears, as if he just rolled out of a grave. The choreography by Shari Azar is solid and inventive throughout the show in tunes like “Please Don’t Touch Me” and “Together Again” as well as the big ensemble numbers “The Happiest Town in Town” and “Transylvania Mania,” where the moves are inspired by “Monster Mash” and “Thriller.”
But the spotlight in “Young Frankenstein” shines most brightly on the 12-foot Frankenstein puppet operated by three masters and designed and constructed by Lisa Sturz and Red Herring Puppets. This is a marvel rarely witnessed in non-marionette theatre or a Day of the Dead parade.
Director Jerry Crouch and musical director Chuck Taft (who conducts the 7-piece band down in the closed orchestra pit) deserve much credit for this monster of a show that just recently became available for community theatres to produce. “Young Frankenstein” is an immensely amusing and entertaining musical with a stellar cast and Crouch has brought it to life with skill and flair that never overshadow the wonderful script. Aside from a couple of dimly-lit scenes and out-of-sync violin playing, this production is near flawless and a testament to Asheville Community Theatre’s commitment to quality and tremendous support from the community.
“Young Frankenstein” continues through Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. and Sundays at 2:30 p.m. through Oct. 25 at Asheville Community Theatre, 35 East Walnut St. in Asheville. Call (828) 254-1320 or visit http://www.ashevilletheatre.org.