High Street’s frightfully funny musical tale

By Cary Ginell

Although their subject matter varies wildly, Mel Brooks’ musicals have many aspects in common. All are characterized by broad satire, physical comedy, bad puns and a keen love for showbizzy, vaudeville-style songs.

“Young Frankenstein,” which made its debut at High Street Arts Center in Moor­park on May 31, is one of Brooks’ better productions, more faithful to its filmed antecedent than Brooks’ “The Producers.” It made its Broadway debut in 2007, some three decades after the film version, and although it didn’t clean up like “The Pro­ducers” did at the Tony Awards, it remains a consistent favorite with regional and community theater companies.

The musical retains all the familiar characters from the 1974 movie, and un­like “The Producers,” resisted the urge to alter the storyline, which was a good decision since the film was uproariously funny. An effective translation to the stage depends on good casting and di­rection and in that regard, High Street’s current production succeeds admirably. Director R. Shane Bingham was wise to select the inordinately likable and talented Michael Rosenblum to play the central character of Dr. Frederick Frankenstein. Rosenblum handled his character’s opening patter song, “The Brain,” with a glib, quick tongue, but for the rest of the show, Frederick is basically a straight man to his cast mates and Rosenblum is smart to defer the spotlight when necessary.

Nico Wicklin does a fine job as the hump-backed Igor; Katie McTyre is equally good as Frederick’s German lab assistant, Inga. Caroline Fazio (Frau Blücher) and Will Palo (Inspector Kemp) are also outstanding in their respec­tive supporting roles, but the show’s scene-stealer is undoubtedly Becca Pey­ton as Frederick’s egotistically teasing fiancée and financier, Elizabeth.

Peyton uses her operatically-trained voice to great effect in her two featured numbers, “Please Don’t Touch Me” and “Deep Love.” Peter Veregge, buried prosthetics and height-en­hancing asphalter’s boots, is perfect as the Monster and executes some nifty tap-dancing on the celebrated “Puttin’ on the Ritz” number. David White, who last performed in “Young Frankenstein” as Igor for Conejo Players Theatre in 2017, emerges here as the blind hermit Harold in a hilarious encounter with the Monster in his cabin.

You’d have to be keen on Hollywood history to recognize all the show biz references Brooks throws into the script, from Frederick’s question to a baggage handler (“Pardon me boy, is this the Transylvania station?”), paralleling the first line to “Chattanooga Choo-Choo,” as well as ticking off all the boxes of the Universal horror movie tropes: from the torch-bearing villagers to the hidden passageways in Dr. Frankenstein’s castle.

Brooks being Brooks, there is an inordinate amount of sexual leering in “Young Frankenstein,” which makes the show inappropriate for younger audienc­es, but this juvenile behavior is simply part of Brooks’ humor and is relatively harmless. Many of the film’s most mem­orable gags (“What knockers!”, “He must have an enormous schwanstücker!” et. al.) stem from this idea, which garners uproarious laughs from the audience, but the naughtiness rarely goes beyond being merely suggestive.

Brooks’ score defeats the purpose of post-“Oklahoma!” integrated show tunes, mainly because the songs basically grow from punchlines (“He Vas My Boyfriend,” “Roll in Ze Hay”) and not character, which don’t offer any mean­ingful story development and actually slow down the action.

Visually, High Street is relying more and more on AI-generated settings, illu­minated on its recently installed video wall, and although the images (including a wonderful animation of the runaway hay wagon scene) enhance the story, it is worrisome that the material element of theatrical set design is quickly becom­ing a thing of the past, not just here, but at theaters all over the country. While the financial advantages of using AI to replace costly sets are understandable, its use in this fashion threatens to end a theater tradition that goes back for more than a century.