It was a raucous evening of theater at the NorShor as the Duluth Playhouse opened their 2023-24 season with the Mel Brooks musical Young Frankenstein. The opening night crowd came ready to laugh, and the stellar cast was prepared to give them every opportunity to chuckle, chortle, cackle, and often downright howl and roar at the ridiculous shenanigans onstage.
Mel Brooks’ wildly successful 1974 film Young Frankenstein, a cult black-and-white classic, was the inspiration for him to write the music and lyrics for his musical version that opened on Broadway in 2007.
When it went to London’s West End in 2017, the musical’s original creative team including Brooks himself, made some revisions and enhancements to the Broadway version. It is the celebrated West End version that the Playhouse used for their production.
In Young Frankenstein, Brooks made his signature use of every kind of humor possible: sight and running gags, physical comedy, puns, pratfalls, innuendos, double entendres, and often just plain naughty, bawdy, and occasionally downright raunchy dialogue and lyrics. The Playhouse cast does justice to them all, playing to an appreciative audience of both people who seemed to know almost every line and bit to first-timers.
With this musical, Brooks also wanted to parody Broadway-style tunes, Golden Age movie musicals, and Universal Films’ classic black-and-white monster and horror movies of the 1930s. While using the classic characters of Frankenstein lore, Brooks brings it to a second generation when a young Doctor Frankenstein, mortified by his father’s legacy, returns to Transylvania when he inherits the family castle.
Wes Drummond, Executive Director at the Playhouse, both directed and choreographed the show. His direction is crisp, sharp, and as Brooks intended, on-point with parodies of the original source material of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Boris Karloff’s Frankenstein, and the later sequels of Bride of Frankenstein and Son of Frankenstein.
Keeping the pace fast throughout, Drummond and his exceptional cast take the audience on a runaway ride of nonstop hilarity from start to finish. His choreography is equally on point, with its peak in the show’s signature tap-dancing mega-production number, “Putting On the Ritz,” that brought some of the opening night audience to their feet.
Leading the troupe of madcap players is Equity actor Kyle Weiler playing Dr. Frederick Frankenstein (or Fronkensteen, as the character repeatedly insists). Paying homage to the film’s young Frankenstein Gene Wilder, Weiler’s curly, wild mane of hair becomes an unbilled character in itself. Yet, he makes the role his own, without trying to be a carbon copy of Wilder’s performance..
Weiler is indeed a triple threat as a dancer, a singer, and an actor. A Julliard graduate in dance, and a veteran of the original Broadway cast and three National Tours of Hamilton (as a Universal Swing and Dance Captain), his every move is that of a dancer who is in complete control of the demanding physical aspects of the role, throwing his body around with wild abandon one minute and then dancing with complete finesse the next.
His voice is also completely up to the task, ranging from a fast almost rap style in “The Brain” and a leading man’s panache and power in “Frederick’s Soliloquy.”
Weiler is believable every second, acting a role that, in turns, requires him to be panicked and nearly maniacal, to tender and sweet, and then back to frenzy and despair. Always in command of every line, pitch, tone, gesture and nuance, Weiler’s performance was a true star turn for an actor who deserves more leading roles.
His sidekick Igor (or Eyegor as he also demands), played brilliantly by Sif Oberon, is the Doctor’s constant companion. Oberon is impressive in a physically demanding role, requiring them to be bent over and having to drag themself back and forth with alacrity across the stage as the Doctor’s faithful flunky.
Oberon doesn’t miss a beat with their accented delivery, grim and often menacing facial expressions, and having to keep track of the mysteriously shifting hump on their back. Again, while many in the audience were aware of Marty Feldman’s masterful performance of the character in the film, Oberon too does their own distinct take with the role.
The actresses who play the musical’s leading women’s roles are also on top of their games. Hope Nordquist plays Inga, the sexy assistant to the Doctor. She becomes an irresistible temptation to him from the first when she sings and yodels about the joys of a “roll in the hay” while the couple bounces around on a wild hayride to the castle.
Nordquist is a delightful foil to the Doctor’s uptight fiancée Elizabeth played by Lacy Sauter Sauter has an incredible soprano voice, clearly showing her soaring range and power from playing major roles in both opera and theater.
Sauter’s acting chops are also on display when she goes from being a prude in her song “Please Don’t Touch Me” at the beginning of the show to a sex-crazed nymphomaniac at show’s end, after her “encounters” with the Monster with her song, the blush-inducing “Deep Love.”
Janet Rowney was an audience favorite, playing the castles’s mysterious housekeeper Frau Blücher whose very name induces wild, high-pitched whinnying from horses. Rowney’s hilarious Cabaret and Marlene Dietrich style song,“He Vas My Boyfriend,” laments her lost love, the original Dr. Frankenstein.
Recreating the iconic monster himself, Phillip Hoelscher had the “gigantic” task of walking on mile-high boots and making guttural vocalizations reflecting his emotions without saying a word. While lacking some of the monster’s beefier physicality, Hoelscher conveyed both the threatening and sweet nature of the bewildered creature.
Hoelscher’s standout laugh-inducing moment was in “Putting on the Ritz,” where, without giving too much away, he becomes the lead song and danceman, joined by the entire cast in true Broadway musical style.
Jeff Brown’s sets provide creative locales, varying from a boat dock, to the woods, from different locales in the creepy castle, to a hermit’s cottage. Brown designed each to be visually impressive and, at the same time, easy to shift to a new scene.
Brown’s lighting was another powerful contribution to the show’s success. Using everything from old-fashioned, footlight-style instruments, to atmospheric castle shadows, and the eerie lighting of the Doctor’s chamber of horrors, Brown’s evocative lighting kept the audience in the moment.
The only thing lacking was some sort of definitive electrification, major lighting style bolt going into the Monster’s body for that bringing him “alive” critical moment.
The show’s ensemble took advantage of chances to shine playing everything from medical students, to pitchfork-wielding villagers, to a Broadway chorus line.
Kudos to Peg Ferguson for creating gorgeous costumes for all the residents of Transylvania and for the leads, reflecting hours of work for her and her talented volunteer seamstresses.
Bravo to the wonderful orchestra, led by music director Kyle Picha, meeting the challenges of playing all the different styles of music that the score requires. Special mention to violin player Lian Ojakangas for some truly beautiful solos.
On a personal note
My first encounter with Young Frankenstein was in its pre-Broadway run in Seattle in 2007 which featured the Broadway cast of some amazing stars including Sutton Foster (Inga), Andrea Martin (Frau Blücher), and Megan Mullally (Elizabeth Benning).
The night I saw it, Mel Brooks himself was in the audience a few rows ahead of us, laughing uproariously at his own musical reboot of his movie classic. I think that Brooks, even at age 97, would find the Playhouse production as hilarious and audacious as his own.
Young Frankenstein at the Duluth Playhouse NorShor Theatre runs now through October 1. Get more information and tickets at destinationduluth.co/YoungFrankenstein
About Sheryl Jensen
A retired educator with the Duluth Public Schools, Sheryl Jensen has been a theater director of over 60 school and community productions. Her production of William Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew at East High School won the National High School Theater award from the BRAVO television network.
Having written theater, music, dance, and opera reviews for the Duluth News Tribune for many years, she now is the Arts & Entertainment Editor for Destination Duluth.
Next up for the Playhouse is the Rodgers and Hammerstein classic, The Sound of Music, running December 1-17.