Everyone knows Mel Brooks made some of the funniest movies ever, and “Young Frankenstein” may rank right at the top. But when you see the stage version at the Playhouse, if you can stop laughing long enough to think straight, you realize the man was also crazy for musicals.
No fewer than 20 songs, nearly all erupting into dance, spice up “The New Mel Brooks Musical” — and was a subtitle ever less necessary? The first thing the audience sees is the orchestra, out front of the stage. The first joke is the spotlight searching for Music Director Brenton Brown, a good sport as well as a gifted maestro. What’s more, every number feels familiar.
There are torch songs, with love-notes extended to the breaking point, put across with larger-than-life brio by Jackie Schmillen of KCWI’s Morning Live. There’s the bromance toe-tapper, with Charlie Reese and Brett Spahr in screwball synch, forging a friendship by kicking up their heels. There’s a jitterbug tune and a barbershop quartet.
Now, the harmonies on that number are handled by ensemble members rather than leads; the Playhouse bench goes deep. But the piece is a twisted home-town salute called “Welcome to Transylvania.” Brooks plays with Broadway standards like a kid who’s gotten into the jam. His messy fingerprints turn one of the torch songs, for instance, into “Deep Love” — a wailing affirmation that when it comes to men, hey, size does matter.
The lucky guy in question, naturally, is The Monster. Adam Yankowy handles the role, bigger than in the movie but still largely wordless. An actor has to do most of the work with his mug, and Yankowy’s proves so flexible, it makes you laugh just to see the contrast with his zombie walk. In the craziest showbiz send-up, a happy-feet celebration of “Puttin’ On the Ritz,” Choreographer Alison Shafer keeps the Monster’s look of brainless ecstasy at the center of things.
Shafer, along with Director Maxwell Schaeffer, understands screwball mechanics. They keep the physical comedy off-kilter, always, and as the action dithers around it gets plenty of help from the lighting, thanks to the Playhouse stalwart Virgil Kleinhesselink. Angela Lampe’s costumes likewise complement the storyline, and only the set, among the tech aspects, seems a letdown. A couple of backdrops look rather middle-school.
There’s nothing underdeveloped about the major players, though. The closest thing to a straight man is the lab assistant Inge, but Patricia Arvanis hits the laugh-lines with NASA precision and adds a rocket boost as a singer each time she lets out her big voice. Another sort of knockout is Mary Bricker, somehow both sexy and grim, finding a fresh way to tackle the punch-line made famous by Cloris Leachman (“Say it! Say it! He was my boyfriend!”)
Still, nobody contributes so much to this whale of a time as Charlie Reese in the title role and Brett Spahr as his hunchbacked sidekick, “Eye-gor.” Spahr is all arms and legs, a whirligig who nonetheless manages a perfect touchdown on every joke. As for Reese, his dance moves can match anyone’s in town — he’s just come out of a rock ’n’ roll musical at Noce — but I was if anything more impressed with his stare, packed with nutty energy. Chock-Full O’Nuts, indeed, seems just the candy bar for this show; it’ll keep you satisfied all night. ♦
Des Moines Playhouse, www.dmplayhouse.com
Wednesday – Saturday, March 22 – April 8, 7:30 p.m.
Sunday, March 28, April 2 and 9, 2 p.m.
John Domini covers theater for Cityview. He is a published local author who has lived on both coasts and abroad and enjoyed theater everywhere.