After a Covid-forced hiatus, the Hayes Theatre Company returns to the stage with an exuberantly joyous bang with Mel Brooks’ rib-tickling take on the Mary Shelley classic.
Directed by Alexander Berlage, musical direction by Andrew Worboys, choreography by Yvette Lee. Book by Mel Brooks and Thomas Meehan, music and lyrics by Mel Brooks.
Based on Mel Brooks’ 1974 cult-classic film of the same name, Young Frankenstein, premiered on Broadway in 2007 and has since taken the form of a cult-musical to perform amongst theatre companies worldwide. Parodying Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein and the classic monster films spawned from companies such as Universal, the story follows the brilliant Dr. Frederick Frankenstein (pronounced Fraun-ken-steen) who inherits his grandfather’s estate, the infamous Victor Frankenstein (pronounced as it sounds) after his passing. Needing to settle his grandfather’s estate, Frederick travels to Transylvania where he meets his new assistant Igor as well as the secrets of his grandfather’s obsession with bringing dead tissue back to life. The rest of the story follows as you would expect, with the hilarious Brooks’ fingerprints written all over it.
Director Alexander Berlage tackles the challenge of staging what is typically an expansive stage musical with numerous ensemble members and a 17-piece orchestra into the condensed theatre home to the Hayes. With just a cast of eight and a 6-piece orchestra, Berlage does the unthinkable and stages what is probably the most unique take on the musical seen since its inception. Walking into the theatre, you would be forgiven if you thought you had walked into a cinema, as Isabel Hudson’s set design made the surrounds of the stage reminiscent of an old-timey ‘black and white’ cinema screening of one of Universal’s original horror flicks. Berlage adds a nice touch with the opening orchestrations being played to a rolling opening credits of the musical, providing warnings of badly spoken European accents, actors playing out of their gender, monsters being brought to life on stage and what promises to be an entertaining night of laughter from the beginning.
Playing the manic role of Dr. Frederick Frankenstein, Matthew Backer manages to bring in elements of an homage to the late, great Gene Wilder whilst also bringing his own elements of maniacal genius to the doctor. Backer plays Frankenstein’s resistance to being the monster his Grandfather was believed to be extremely poignantly, whilst also providing the true essence of the family he was born in to. Backer’s character acting is spot on throughout the entire musical, from his physical characterisation, comedic timing, and ability to also poke fun at his current role on ABC’s Play School. No matter who Backer played opposite on stage, he managed to hold his own gravitas and presence, proving himself to truly be a leading man.
As Frankenstein’s assistant, Igor (Ee-gor or Eye-Gor?) Luke Leong-Tay chews up the scenery and revels in the sheer silliness of his character. Providing some hilarious fourth wall breaking moments that (quite literally) stopped the show, Leong-Tay was having too much fun back where he belongs, and that energy spilled over to the audience. The only minor inconsistency that could be noted would be that Igor’s characteristics could have been amplified to the level some of the other characters were to fully blend with the parody of the entire show.
Stealing the show every moment she could as the “mad-cap fiancé” Elizabeth Benning, Shannon Dooley was superb as the zany, fashionista who was too precious for her fiancé to touch, lest he ruffle a single feather on her designer clothes or touch her nails before they were dry. Revelling in the over-the-top energy of her character and warbling ecstatic soprano notes, Dooley chewed the scenery every time she stepped foot on stage in whichever character she was playing.
Playing the subtler love-interest of the show, Ben Gerrard won the crowd over as Inga, the Transylvanian “assistant” of Frederick. Anyone who would have rebutted Gerrard playing the role was quickly silenced as Gerrard brought to life her innocent innuendos and seducing accent. Gerrard’s honesty in the role was commendable and never made Inga less than whimsical or fanciful to Backer’s Frankenstein.
Rounding out the cast were Lucia Mastrantone as Frau Blucher (insert horse whiney sound effect), the house maid to Victor Frankenstein whose connection went much deeper than first appears. Taking great joy in the madness and silliness of her character, Mastrantone added elements of improvisation which worked with every chance she had.
As the Creature, Nick Eynaud managed to bring heart and soul into the terrifying creature that was created, with some impressive movements in the insanely intricate costume provided and high capped boots that added immense height to the creation he was.
Playing the other multitude of characters throughout the show including the hobbling Inspector Kemp, “thousands” of angry villagers, and a (quite literal) hermit, were Amy Hack and Olivia Charalambous. With opportunities to stand out amongst the rest of the characters in the insanity of the production, Hack and Charalambous provided hilarious political humour, fourth wall breaking theatre in-jokes as well brilliantly performed dance numbers.
Arguably the other stars of the show were Isabel Hudson’s set and Mason Browne’s costuming. With a green set of staircases with hidden doors, smoking holes and dizzying angles, Hudson managed to create an atmosphere of insanity that the actors played off with ease. Squeezing out of impossibly tight doorways and with smooth quick changes, the set worked with every gag and movement directed by Alexander Berlage as well as working to accommodate the sharp, manic choreography of Yvette Lee in such a confined space. Browne’s costume design revealed an overwhelming, surprising, and surreal colour that referenced club-kid culture, punk as well as northern European folklore to truly allow each character and each choreographed movement to be seen on stage.
With all the anxiety fuelled, madcap farcical energy that Young Frankenstein embodied, it is easy for those not fond of such fourth wall breaking, burlesque style of theatre to warm up to, and so may not make this production the right fit for all theatre lovers. However, Alexander Berlage’s direction as well as the unmatched musical talents of musical director Andrew Worboys made Young Frankenstein a triumphant return to the stage for the Hayes Theatre.
If this is what the company has been creating on their downtime, we are sure to see much more exciting and continuously inventive pieces of theatre in the months to come. The season is currently sold out, but if a ticket should become available, get your hands on it!
Young Frankenstein is at the Hayes theatre, Sydney, until 20 March.
Have you seen the show? What were your thoughts?