Review: Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein Is a Bawdy and Hilarious Hit at Mercury Theater

Mel Brooks is one of the great comic geniuses of our time and he has said that Young Frankenstein was his favorite film. From that comic lunacy came the musical Young Frankenstein with music and lyrics by Mel Brooks and the book co-written by Thomas Meehan. Mercury Theater's fantastic cast performed two hours of inspired lunacy beautifully directed by L. Walter Stearns. It is perfect to open the fun part of the Halloween season and boy did I need the laughs.

Young Frankenstein takes James Whale's 1931 movie and turns it on its ear. Frederick Frankenstein (Sean Fortunato) is living a quiet life teaching at a medical school in New York. He openly refutes his grandfather's work on the reanimation of dead corpses to be insane and unethical. The students in the class are cynical and have doubts, which Victor rebuffs with the opening number "The Brain." Fortunato projects that cuddly/nerd persona as his character proclaims to be a scientist and knows all about the brain as the most vital organ. He receives a telegram that his grandfather has died and he must go and settle the estate and that is all he intends to do. What follows are portrayals of beloved characters etched in my psyche by the film's performances but made fresh and unique by this talented cast.

Sean Fortunato and Sean Stajmiger. Photo by Liz Lauren.

As Frederick prepares to board the USS Shelley (ahem) he is seen off at the port by his wealthy and madcap fiancée Elizabeth played by—on 10 at all times—Lillian Castillo, who has amazing pipes and star-quality comic chops. Castillo uses her voice musically in speaking as she trills an impossibly high laugh. Elizabeth strings Frederick along, teasing him with her luxuriant charms but will not allow him to get all handsy as in the song "Don't Touch Me." Fortunato portrays Frederick as a man who's never been intimate and is ready to explode. His facial expressions and tightly clenched walk to the ship say it all. Poor schmuck can't even get a kiss or even cop a perimeter feel.

Igor (Sean Stajmiger) awaits his new master at the Transylvania train stop. Some of the dialog refers to cheesy horror movie cliches to point out obvious inconsistencies. Dracula is from Transylvania but the town can stand in for every horror flick. Stajmiger portrays an endearing and smart-ass misfit with a hump that keeps moving from left to right. When Victor says "Frahn-kin-steen," Igor says Eye-gore and calls his master "Froh-drick" with a don't-get-too-big for your lab coat sneer. Stajmiger excels at physical comedy and singing with a horror spoof accent. Igor has taken the liberty of hiring a lab assistant named Inga (Isabella Andrews) who proves to be the perfect enticement for Frederick to at least check out Grandpa's lab.

Lillian Castillo and Mary Robin Roth. Photo by Liz Lauren.

Andrews plays Inga with a pretend naïveté and breezy smile. She was dressed like the cover of a romance novel with a heaving bosom, but the string-of-sausages necklace took it perfectly over the top. Andrews also has a lovely soprano that breezes through "Roll in the Hay." Brooks is known for using visual euphemisms as punchlines. It works quite well as Inga and Frederick ride in a bouncy haycart to the Frankenstein castle. They are greeted by the stern and ominous housekeeper-Frau Blücher (insert frightened horse whinny). Mary Robin Roth brings out the comically sexy side of Frau Blücher as she shimmies to "He Vas My Boyfriend." She recounts Victor's experiments and what a genius he was to the point of Frederick believing that his grandfather was on the track of a medical breakthrough that went wrong.

Meanwhile, the villagers are in an uproar led by Inspector Hans Kemp (Jonah D. Winston), the Teutonic amputee who has to manually move his prosthetic arm, pointing finger, and leg. Winston is on point as the bizarre inspector. His physical comedy is timed perfectly and on beat with the performances. He has that Snidely Whiplash persona of maniacal glee leading the cast in "Hang Him Till He's Dead." The cast and ensemble perform Brenda Didier's punchy and nimble. choreography to a tee. "Transylvania Mania" has moves like the macarena craze of the '80s to Brooks' whacky lyrics.

Andrew McNaughton as the Monster possibly has the most difficult role in having to portray a funny Monster hidden under spirit gum flesh and green makeup but McNaughton is fun as the Monster who did not ask to be born or given a brain from Abby Normal. Having been set on the loose by a lovesick Frau Blücher, the Monster finds his way to the home of the Hermit (Sam Shankman) and endures what is possibly the worst dinner party ever. Shankman is flat-out hilarious as the blind Hermit. He makes the most out of a the cameo role as he innocently and clumsily scalds the Monster, followed by a punch to the head with a stein, and then set on fire.

Andrew McNaughton and Sean Fortunato. Photo by Liz Lauren.

Shenanigans and sexual escapades are woven into this fun musical. It is sung well and perfectly paced as a farcical satire should be. The music and lyrics are classic Mel Brooks, and a bullseye pie-in-the-face to social propriety, sex, and pretense. I recently covered The Producers, also created by Mel Brooks; these two works are the basis of a Brooks canon of comic music and films. His work sparkles on the big screen with a beloved cast of regulars and Mercury Theater has recreated that magic with a cast and ensemble of top musical actors.

Speaking of music, the music was played live and conducted by Eugene Dizon with Linda Madonia on keyboard, Cara Strauss on reeds, Greg Strauss on trumpet, and Lindsay Williams on percussion. A live band or orchestra for a musical is essential to the success of the performance. The timing and reaction interludes are tight and attuned to the action on the stage. The costumes were fun from Frau Blücher's uptight corset and skirt to Lillian Castillo looking like a box of Red Hots in that dress—spicy and tasty. Rachel Boylan is responsible for the costume design and managed to make dirndl skirts look good. That is a tall order. I never understood why dirndls were ever exported out of the Alps or Transylvania.

I highly recommend Young Frankenstein as a respite from all of the craziness in our world right now, It's fun, hilarious, has a good beat and you can dance to it. Apologies to Dick Clark, to whom I would also ask, why did every cheesy teenager interviewed on American Bandstand always say that? Young Frankenstein runs 2 hours with a 20-minute intermission. It plays through December 31 at the Mercury Theater, 3745 N. Southport Ave. Tickets are $38-$85. For more information please visit www.mercurytheater.org. Get your spooky on!

For more information on this and other plays, see theatreinchicago.com.


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Kathy D. Hey

Kathy D. Hey writes creative non-fiction essays. A lifelong Chicagoan, she is enjoying life with her husband, daughter and three dogs in the wilds of Edgewater. When she isn’t at her computer, she is in her garden growing vegetables and herbs for kitchen witchery.