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Review: 'Young Frankenstein' is monstrously good fun

A mad scientist, a spooky castle, a hunchbacked assistant and a lumbering monster? Sounds like a recipe for a "Frankenstein" tale. Mix in some jazz hands, kick lines and bawdy humor and you've got Mel Brooks' "Young Frankenstein," Palo Alto Players' latest musical.

Much as King Arthur had his "Monty Python and the Holy Grail," followed by the musical, "Spamalot!" Mary Shelley's horror novel finds itself the target of spoofing, first on the big screen in 1974's "Young Frankenstein," then on Broadway in 2007.

"Young Frankenstein" is also a loving parody of and homage to the classic 1930s Hollywood "Frankenstein" series, starring Boris Karloff. Brooks previously found success going from cinema to stage with "The Producers."

As with any parody, it helps (and is much funnier) if you're familiar with the source material, but the "Frankenstein" themes are so culturally pervasive that the show should be enjoyable for anyone, even if they haven't seen the films or read the novel.

"Young Frankenstein" takes place in 1931 -- in Transylvania, for some reason (because Dracula?). The play opens with the villagers rejoicing after the death of Victor Frankenstein (Shawn Bender), the last in a long line of mad scientists who've perpetually terrorized the town by creating zombie-esque monsters. Unfortunately for the locals, it turns out there's one last descendant of the kooky clan up on the hill: Frederick Frankenstein (Steven Ennis), a nebbish anatomy professor from New York, who's summoned to inherit the castle and "family business."

Frederick has always taken pains to distance himself from his infamous forebears, even changing the pronunciation of his last name. But soon enough he's bidding farewell to his fiancée, Elizabeth (Lindsay Stark), and is Transylvania-bound. Upon his arrival, he's greeted by Igor (pronounced "Eye-gor," played by Joey McDaniel), the creepy assistant with the mysteriously movable humpback; and Inga (Jessica Whittemore), a blonde-bombshell laboratory technician who falls for Frederick. At the castle they also meet Frau Blücher (Linda Piccone), fearsome housekeeper and former flame of the recently deceased elder Dr. Frankenstein. After reading his grandfather's treatise on bringing the dead back to life, Frederick finds the experimenting urge irresistible and sends Igor to fetch a fresh corpse and a suitable brain. Soon enough, "it's alive," and Transylvania's streets are haunted by the terrifying creature with the "abby-normal" brain and heart of a song-and-dance man (Michael D. Reed).

If this all sounds very silly, that's the idea. Brooks has a distinct comedic style, so if you don't enjoy benignly naughty jokes or lines such as, "Werewolves? There, wolves!" this might not be the show for you. The most famous scene in the film version is probably the one in which Frankenstein and monster team up for an absurd rendition of "Puttin' on the Ritz." That's preserved in the play, and the rest of the soundtrack is made up of similarly, and appropriately, jazzy productions. These songs are wholeheartedly and unmistakably show tunes and for the most part very pleasant, although none quite live up to the vintage Irving Berlin number. Some just drag on a bit too long, most notably "Transylvania Mania," although that too could be considered a nod to classic Hollywood musicals.

The Palo Alto Players do an excellent job with "Young Frankenstein," both in the actors' performances and production's design. Set designer Kuo-Hao Lo's artfully transforms the small Lucie Stern Theatre, and costume designer Shannon Maxham dresses the characters in a manner that is at once kitschy, colorful and swoon-worthy. It's a technically challenging play and the crew deserves commendation for pulling it off with aplomb.

Although dance can sometimes be a weak link in community theater, choreographer Jennifer Gorgulho leads the players through plenty of pleasant toe tapping and shimmying. Leading man Ennis seems to simply channel Gene Wilder, who played Young Frankenstein in Brooks' film, rather than find his own way into the character, and George Mauro's performance is reminiscent of Gene Hackman's as the lonely, blind hermit, but that's fine. Originality isn't essential here. Leading ladies Stark, Whittemore and Piccone all shine, and McDaniel makes up for a pretty iffy cockney accent with charm and comic timing. Any version of "Frankenstein" is only as good as its misunderstood monster, and Reed does not disappoint, turning in the strongest performance as "ol' zipper neck."

It's campy, cornball and catchy -- just what you want from a Mel Brooks show. Everyone, on stage and in the audience, seems to be having a terrific time, making "Young Frankenstein" as resounding a success as the doctor's infamous experiment.

What: "Young Frankenstein," by Mel Brooks and Thomas Meehan; music and lyrics by Mel Brooks; presented by Palo Alto Players

Where: Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto

When: Through May 11, with 8 p.m. shows Thursday to Saturday, and 2:30 p.m. matinée-only on Sunday

Cost: Tickets range from $19 to $45

Info: Go to www.paplayers.org or call 650-329-0891

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