Tucked away in one corner of the musical theater’s long history is a British subgenre known as the Christmas panto. Born out of 18th-century harlequinades, initially performed by actors imported from Italy, who conveyed with their bodies what they didn’t yet know how to say in English (hence “pantomime” or “panto”), its baggy shape enwraps a whole absurd but rigorous set of conventions: a familiar fairy or folk tale told in a topsy-turvy way, with topical jokes, interpolated songs, a little gender-reversed casting, and a lot of tomfoolery. Reformatted and updated every year, it’s taken far more seriously as a tradition than as an art form: Its essence is just silly fun for a holiday treat, with about the same degree of cultural significance as your average plum pudding.
I mention this because, given its steep ticket prices, many people will undoubtedly mistake Mel Brooks’s
Young Frankenstein for a new musical. Indeed, wailers on theater chat sites have been proclaiming for weeks that it marks the death of the musical theater. Children, relax. Young Frankenstein is a harmless, goofy, sometimes mildly funny Christmas panto. Trust me, it will have no influence whatever on the future of the musical theater. Aside from arousing an occasional smile or chuckle, this big, expensive creature hardly affects you while you’re sitting in the theater; it could no more affect an entire art form than George Bush could read the Koran in the original Arabic. If Brooks and his combine had announced the show for a limited holiday engagement and cast Charles Busch as Frau Blücher, it would mean no more than other grinches of its ilk, and the overwrought laments about its quality would never have existed. The ticket price, of course, provokes some of those laments, but every other attraction in town is overpriced too, so who can blame Brooks & Co. for charging what the traffic will bear? Capitalism is a better, though by no means an older, joke than any in Young Frankenstein, even if ticket buyers, being its butt, fail to see the humor of it.
As pantos go, Young Frankenstein has its good points. It’s pain-free, jovial, and carried out professionally, if with little inspiration. Apart from the two famous quoted songs (“Puttin’ on the Ritz” and “Ah, Sweet Mystery of Life”), its numbers are all new ones by Brooks, but, being mostly imitations of the cheery songs that infest second-rank ’30s movie musicals, they offer the same pleasantly familiar feeling as the antiquated jokes. If Jonathan Deans’s aggressively overamplified sound design didn’t keep shrieking you awake, the material would supply the same lulling effect as a late-night parade of black-and-white tuners on TCM.
Not everything in Young Frankenstein has that weary old feeling. Although Roger Bart and Sutton Foster, as the hero and his lust-ridden lab assistant, match rather than transcend their material’s amiable efficiency, the conception and staging of Megan Mullally’s untouchable Elizabeth have some style, and there are three exceptional performances that make you feel you’re not just watching the movie again: Christopher Fitzgerald’s Igor; the Frau Blücher of Andrea Martin, who can match Charles Busch in the camp department anytime; and Shuler Hensley’s monster, animated by a musical-theater flair that was never part of the late Peter Boyle’s persona. None of them, regrettably, gets to offer more than a few original touches; the recycler’s instinct drives both Brooks’s writing and Susan Stroman’s staging so insistently that Fitzgerald has even been compelled, pointlessly, to adopt Marty Feldman’s Cockney accent. Such inattentiveness to both common sense and comic ability was always forgivable in pantos, because they were put up in a rush for the holiday season. Buyers at today’s prices may be less forgiving.
Almost wholly unforgivable is The Glorious Ones, the new Ahrens-Flaherty musical, which purports to show the origins of commedia dell’arte, the harlequinade theatrical form from which panto ultimately derived. Here the old jokes fall flat, with a limp thud of earnestness; Young Frankenstein, despite its overblown ordinariness, understands comedy well enough to give this tiny competitor a thorough, slapsticky trouncing in every department. I don’t know the novel by Francine Prose on which Ahrens’s libretto is based, but the show’s notions of what commedia was, how it evolved, and its performers’ outlook on life are numbingly, staggeringly wrong in every respect. The lamebrained historical inaccuracy wouldn’t matter if this tale of how Flaminio Scala (Marc Kudisch) created the 16th century’s most famous commedia troupe provided any dramatic bite, humor, or depth of feeling to go along with Flaherty’s likable second-drawer music. But there’s nothing there, so that the attractive cast, under Graciela Daniele’s direction, seems to be constantly pouring its energy into a void. Kudisch, who’s obliged to pour the most, probably deserves a reward. Won’t somebody please revive Kean or Kiss Me, Kate for him? And someone might mention to Ahrens that lazzi is a plural noun—doesn’t Lincoln Center have dramaturgs?