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Preview: ‘Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein’

Moonlight Stage Goes Transylvania Mania

KPBS arts reporter Beth Accomando sits in on a rehearsal of "Mel Brooks' Young Frankenstein."

KPBS arts reporter Beth Accomando previews the Moonlight Stage's production of "Mel Brooks' Young Frankenstein" by checking out a rehearsal.


“Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein” makes its San Diego professional premiere this week at Vista’s Moonlight Amphitheater. I went to a rehearsal for a preview.

In the trailer for Mel Brooks’ 1974 film “Young Frankenstein,” Brooks provides this voiceover endorsement: “It’s coming, from the deep, dark recesses of the mind of Mel Brooks, I love him.”

It’s things like that that made Matthew J. Vargo fall in love with Brooks.

“I’m a fan of Mel Brooks,” Vargo enthused. “I’ve been a fan of his and all of his movies, and he brings these wacky, crazy, zany characters to life.”

Much the same way that Dr. Frankenstein brings his creature to life.

Trailer Young Frankenstein

Vargo has a history with Brooks that dates back to 2003 when he was involved in a touring company of “The Producers.” Now Vargo is directing and choreographing the Moonlight Stage’s production of “Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein,” based on the 1974 film.

“Anyone who’s a fan of the movie,” Vargo said, ‘[the musical play] definitely is an homage and a love letter to the movie. So all those fantastic lines that everybody knows, and characters, are definitely in the show.”

Like the famous exchange between Igor (played by Marty Feldman in the film) and Dr. Frankenstein (played by Gene Wilder in the film):

Igor: Dr. Frankenstein...

Dr. Frederick Frankenstein: "Fronkensteen."

Igor: You're putting me on.

Dr. Frederick Frankenstein: No, it's pronounced "Fronkensteen."

Igor: Do you also say "Froaderick"?

Dr. Frederick Frankenstein: No... "Frederick."

Igor: Well, why isn't it "Froaderick Fronkensteen"?

Dr. Frederick Frankenstein: It isn't; it's "Frederick Fronkensteen."

Brooks’ film and subsequent musical adaptation serve up an affectionate valentine to Mary Shelley’s classic novel “Frankenstein” and the Universal horror films of the 30s. In the Moonlight Stage production, Larry Raben plays Frederick, the grandson of the infamous Victor Von Frankenstein. Raben said Brooks’ lines are an actor’s dream.

“They’re a road map for comedy,” Raben said. “He likes to write in twos, you know ‘What is it? What is it?’ But it’s just his cadence, it’s funny even on the page. So if you just pay attention to how he wrote it, the comedy comes.”

Raben had the chance to meet Brooks while working on a production of the musical play “The Producers.”

“It was a dream come true,” Raben recalled. “I was always a huge Mel Brooks fan and to have Mel come up to you when you did something that he liked, like a grandfather, and would grab your cheeks and go, ‘Ah Lar, that was beautiful.’ It’s the best feeling in the world.”

Photo caption:

Photo credit: Ken Jacques Photography

"Mel Brooks' Young Frankenstein" makes its professional Southern California debut at the Moonlight Amphitheater.

Raben played Leo Bloom in a touring company of “The Producers.” He sees similarities between Leo and Dr. Frankenstein, characters created on film by Gene Wilder.

“Yes, they’re kind of two heads on the same coin,” Raben said. “They’re both virgins when they start their journey and they both meet a great woman that turns their world around but they are both eccentric and kind of half-baked in their own way, and the journey of each play brings them into manhood, so I think they are a lot of similarities.”

Brooks was a longtime fan of Broadway musicals so it’s no surprise that when his humor started to lose popularity in films, he simply reinvented himself in the new millennium by turning his hit films ("The Producers" and then "Young Frankenstein") into successful stage musicals.

Vargo pointed out, “In all of his films, there’s always a musical number. There’s always singing and dancing. In ‘History of the World Part I,’ you have The Inquisition; in ‘Blazing Saddles’ you have 'I’m Tired.’ So he always loves the musical genre. [And] ‘The Producers’ doing a musical about Hitler, and that was done in 60-something, not that far from World War II, and yet he was able to allow people to look at some sort of serious subject matter and put a spin on it to say that it’s OK to laugh.”

Photo caption:

Photo credit: Ken Jacques Photography

Putting on the Ritz in "Mel Brooks' Young Frankenstein."

“Young Frankenstein” was a logical choice to adapt to the stage, added Vargo: “It lends itself very well because each time we meet a new character – Elizabeth, the fiancée; Igor, the doctor’s assistant; Frau Blucher; it is a perfect set-up for them to have their song to sort of introduce who their character is and the role they will play.”

And to have each character break into song as their introduction seems natural for Vargo.

“For me as a dancer and a singer, it doesn’t seem so crazy and far-fetched for people to do that, you know, in our world the reason you sing, the reason you dance, is that you can’t find the words to articulate what you’re feeling,” Vargo said.

That makes sense for an uptight character like Frau Blucher. Or for Frederick who needs to get pulled out of his shell.

“I think the thing that’s so great about this as a musical play as opposed to just a film is the songs take us into a whole deeper dimension into what’s going on inside Doctor Frankenstein’s head, so yeah it’s fun,” Raben said.

Part of the fun comes from the relationship of the main characters.

“The four of them really are to me the dysfunctional family that support each other, that sort of push each other, prod each other, and push the buttons that all dysfunctional families do,” Vargo said. “And that’s the thing that works for Mel and his shows; that he loves movies, he loves song and dance. All of his movies are an homage to a genre, ‘Blazing Saddles’ was an homage to the western, ‘Young Frankenstein’ is an homage to film noir/suspense original horror film. It’s all about love, not necessarily about making fun of people. It’s those characters from those genres are making fun of themselves.”

“Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein” comes to life this week at the outdoor Moonlight Amphitheater with sets and costumes from the Broadway production.

Companion viewing: “Young Frankenstein,” “Blazing Saddles,” “Frankenstein” (1931), “Bride of Frankenstein”

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