Of all the troubles that come with inheriting the family business, few are as daunting as those bequeathed to Frederick Frankenstein, grandson of the infamous monster-maker Victor Frankenstein. On the pro-side: The Frankenstein family business is a stellar model of sustainability and recycling. On the con-side: Grave robbing is inherently icky. So who can blame young Frederick from turning his back on his grandfather’s singular calling?
But “Young Frankenstein: The Musical” makes monstrously clear that detaching oneself from one’s family is easier said than done. Based on Mel Brooks’ 1974 film of the same name, the musical opens in previews Jan. 16 at Drury Lane Oakbrook. The story of a lonesome Monster (Travis Taylor) and his “father” presents more than a few challenges for director William Osetek. First and foremost among those challenges is that fact that — like the overwhelming preponderance of critics who reviewed the show in its Broadway version — Osetek wasn’t exactly blown away by the show when he saw a touring production a few years ago.
“I came away from it raving about the scenery,” Osetek recalls dryly.
But Osetek is nothing if not creatively ingenious, and he set his mind to reanimating the troubled show with an emphasis on an issue everyone can relate to: Family.
In “Young Frankenstein,” Frederick (Devin DeSantis) is so appalled by his grandfather Victor’s (Jeff Parker) life-giving shenanigans that he changes his name to Fronkensteen, flees his ancestral estate in Transylvania and takes up residence as a Dean of Anatomy professor in New York. The musical begins with the death of Victor and Frederick’s reluctant return to Transylvania to settle the estate.
“I couldn’t be a bigger fan of the movie,” says Osetek. “I think the movie worked, because it was hilarious, obviously, but also because the idea of a monster with a heart of gold is just so intriguing. That inside something that’s absolutely terrifying, you can find someone with a huge capacity to love.”
Which isn’t to say Osetek is getting all movie-of-the-week sentimental with “Young Frankenstein.” This is, after all, a show with werewolves, vampires, a yodeling lab assistant with Jessica Rabbit-like proportions and a Monster whose “enormous schwanzstuker” is the source of more than a little commentary. Without a heart in the right place, “Young Frankenstein: The Musical” turns into a shrill, soulless assault of crude slapstick and puerile humor.
Finding the proper balance between goofball inanity and empathetic characters is a tricky business, Osetek says, arguably the trickiest when it comes to the character of Igor. It falls to actor Jeff Dumas to bring life to the bug-eyed, hunch-backed sidekick.
“I think Igor is Frankenstein’s voice of reason. He’s the first friend that Frederick makes when he gets back to Transylvania,” says Dumas. “Igor leads Frankenstein back into monster making; it’s almost like he helps Frankenstein find his purpose. He’s wacky and zany but there’s something that is sweet about their friendship. To me, the show is about these two guys who are looking at a lot of tradition while facing their demons.
“And yeah, he’s ugly and misshapen,” adds Dumas, “but Igor knows how to do a killer time step.”
Along with the rest of the cast, Igor also gets to work on a great set. Frankenstein’s laboratory, notes Osetek, will probably require that Drury Lane shell out more for scenic design than it has in years.
“Oh my God, that lab,” Osetek says, “It’s huge. It’s got to be incredible, with walloping special effects.” With Broadway vet Kevin Depinet in charge of crafting the set, Young Frankenstein’s workspace is in good hands.
“You know,” concludes Dumas, “I don’t think ‘Young Frankenstein’ has gotten the attention it deserves. Everybody panned it on Broadway. But there’s a great story here, the story of a guy who is running from his past but ultimately comes to face it. I dunno. Maybe I’m digging a little too deep here. If we can provide people with a fun night out in the middle of a Chicago winter, that’ll make me happy.”