Reeling Broadway Behemoths

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This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk.

Movies adapted into musicals have been Broadway's lifeblood this decade, with shows like The Producers, Hairspray and The Lion King keeping theaters filled year-round. But this season, Broadway's two biggest movie-based musicals have been savaged by critics and haven't lived up to their box office expectations.

frankenstein1.jpgYoung Frankenstein, Mel Brooks' follow-up to his smash hit, The Producers, is the first disappointment -- though it's not the "monster" debacle that many have claimed. Gigantic, crass, unsubtle, and pandering; The New Mel Brooks Musical Young Frankenstein (yes, that's the official title of the show) is mainly a victim of its inflated hype, enormous budget and staggering ticket prices. (As much as $450 a seat!) The conventional wisdom is that Young Frankenstein is no Producers... but the show's music, lyrics, and style are exactly the same as The Producers. The songs, like in The Producers, are a pastiche of old Broadway melodies that are largely forgettable; and the jokes are of the same Mel Brooks no-pun-or-sex-joke-left-behind vintage. So what's the problem? Young Frankenstein is The Producers... but without a Nathan Lane. Lane's larger-than-life chutzpah is what made The Producers shine, despite the show's less than stellar songs and groan-inducing gags. Young Frankenstein isn't in need of a re-write or brain transplant, what it needs is a bona-fide Broadway star in the role of Dr. Victor von Frankenstein.

frankenstein2.jpg That's Roger Bart in the role Gene Wilder made famous in the 1974 film. Bart is a solid performer, but without Wilder's deadpan sincerity or Lane's winking sarcasm, he can't carry the show. He is surrounded by a fine supporting cast, including Megan Mullally, Sutton Foster and Andrea Martin as Frau Blucher.

Yes, that joke is recycled as are most of the movie's better set pieces; but besides an amusing tap dance between Frankenstein and his monster, Brooks never really improves on the original. Watching Susan Stroman's production is like sitting in Frankenstein's laboratory staring at the remains, waiting for a magical, life-giving spark that simply never comes.

mermaid1.jpgYoung Frankenstein also suffers from the fact that the original material (a spoof of old Monster movies) was simply better suited for the screen; this isn't exactly the case with this season's other screen-to-stage disappointment. When The Little Mermaid arrived in movie theaters in 1989, Alan Menken and Howard Ashman's buoyant score was better than any of the new musicals nominated for Tonys that year. This year, Ariel and company have set up ship on Broadway, but Francesca Zambello's production succeeds only in drowning Menken & Ashman's classic songs in a sea of shimmering plastic noodles and fluorescent Lycra.

Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Doug Wright was enlisted to adapt the script, but his additions are largely aquatic puns of the "Squid Pro Quo" variety. He and Zambello are unable to perform the alchemy of Disney's recent Pixar films, which deftly entertain children and adults alike. Their version of The Little Mermaid seems to be pitched solely to audience members under the age of 12. This is a travesty since Menken & Ashman's songs are still as sophisticated as they are catchy.

mermaid2.jpg That's Sherie René Scott as Ursula the Sea Witch. Scott's vocal performance pales in comparison to Pat Carroll's devilish drawl in the film, as do most of the voices on stage. It's not that the singing, dancing, and roller skating is bad; it's just so bland—which is also the case with the 10 new songs (with lyrics by Glenn Slater). Whereas seeing Disney's staged Lion King was an entirely different experience than the film, Disney's The Little Mermaid offers no real theatrical innovation. Like Young Frankenstein, it shows the riskiness of adapting beloved movies into musicals at a time when DVD's are so much cheaper than a trip to Broadway.

This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk for KCRW.