On at least three occasions during Thursday's preview performance, Quad City Music Guild's Young Frankenstein achieved a transcendent silliness - the kind you get with stunning regularity in Mel Brooks' film-spoof inspiration. If you include everything said and done by Nate Karstens' hunchback Igor, it was more like 203 occasions, but in the spirit of this tasty musical confection, let's save the sweetest for dessert.
Occasions one and two both showcased Tom Vaccaro's blind hermit, whom Gene Hackman famously played in the 1974 movie. Hackman was on-screen for just over four minutes. Vaccaro's hermit is around for about three times that length, and with all due deference to Hackman, is maybe three times as funny. He's introduced with one of Brooks' new compositions for the material, a lonely-man ballad titled "Please Send Me Someone," and like most of Young Frankenstein's songs, it isn't terribly memorable. Given director Michael Turczynski's riotously clever staging in this production number, it doesn't need to be.
Wandering about aimlessly while Music Guild stagehands try, with comically incredulous annoyance, to make a scene shift without bashing into the oblivious coot, Vaccaro performs priceless Mr. Magoo shtick here. He misdirects his focus, mounts rolling set pieces, and finds other ways to impede the stagehands' business while singing the whole time, and the actor, and his show, are just as wonderful in the sequence that follows: an almost word-for-word, bit-for-bit replay of Hackman's encounter with Peter Boyle's monster. Everything you remember from the movie is accounted for, from the crotchful of hot soup to the thumb on fire to the hermit's tag "I was going to make espresso!" (Also accounted for is the mug that shatters in a toast to friendship, and kudos to the props team, led by Cherie Lyman and Bob Williams, for the mug's impressive shatter-ability.) But while the gags may be familiar, they're performed with such divine, fearless lunacy by Vaccaro and Nathan Bates - who delivers his monster's endearing grunts and shrieks in ways that feel entirely his own - that they feel newly alive.
Which brings us to "Puttin' on the Ritz," the show's pièce de résistance and, quite likely, Brooks' original inspiration for musical-izing Young Frankenstein. (Beyond, y'know, the success of The Producers. And the money.) In the film, this routine - a shockingly subtle one for Brooks - finds Dr. Frederick Frankenstein and his newly, nearly cultured creature singing and hoofing to Irving Berlin, and the scene is legendary for a reason: It's perfect. In Music Guild's version, what makes this sequence soar is its continual compounding of pleasures.
There's the hammy brio of Frau Blücher's intro, with Nancy Teerlinck, here, at her comedic best. There's Ian Sodawasser's light, charming crooning as Frederick. Bates' giddy swaying and happily unintelligible refrains. Solo verses for Karstens' Igor and Abbey Donohoe's innocently lascivious Inga. The period vibrancy of designer Diane Turczynski's ensemble costumes. Sara Laufer's jazzy choreography for the spirited tap number. And the exuberant, climactic kick line with, in a blessed inevitability, Vacarro's hermit facing the wrong way. When this musical soars highest, as it does here, it's when Brooks' fondly remembered material explodes with newly imagined grandeur and that zestful immediacy only live performance provides, and my only complaint with Music Guild's show-stopper is really more of a question: Are the flashing bulbs that surround the Prospect Park Auditorium proscenium still functional? If so, why didn't they flash? I hardly expected to see them employed for Les Mis or Oklahoma!, but if ever a number begged for that fabulously cheeky Vegas-lighting effect, it's "Puttin' on the Ritz."
That said, if all of Young Frankenstein were at the level of that song-and-dance and the hermit's monkeyshines, Brooks' musical might've reached Producers-style greatness. It's not, and it doesn't, and that leaves a number of holes in director Turczynski's production that aren't really his or his cast's fault. (I've gotten this far without detailing the show's plot and won't start now, but if you're somehow in the dark, just imagine a Mel Brooks/Mary Shelley love child with a whoopee-cushion diaper.) As slavishly indebted to the film as Brooks' and Thomas Meehan's book is, it could've, I thought, stood to be even more faithful. The inclusions of Victor von Frankenstein's ghost (Tom Naab) and the village idiot Ziggy (Tristan Tapscott) add little comedically and even less narratively, and for some odd reason, the film's Dr. Strangelove-esque Inspector Kemp (Dick Lafrenz) has been made almost entirely humorless. There seems little point in giving Kemp a stiff right arm and a stiff left leg when the whole character is a stiff.
Seemingly extraneous additions and deletions now mar formerly choice routines, with Frau Blücher's protracted come-on that ended with "Ovaltine!" now extended to include reference to a fancy coffee drink - an unnecessary, unamusing violation of the "three is funny" rule. (The biggest head-scratcher among excised lines: the ditching of Igor's "Call it ... a hunch!", which you'd think would've been money in the bank.) Donohoe is a beguiling presence whose comedic yodel earned deserved applause, but the role of Inga is, if possible, even more blithely underwritten here than in the film. And while Frederick's fiancée Elizabeth (Beth Marsoun, her voice a delightful blend of squeak and squawk) has a couple of songs that walk that fine Brooks-ian line between raucous and tasteless - especially when, in "Please Don't Touch Me," she sets what must be a record for the number of times "tits" can be sung in three minutes - the non-Berlin songs are uniformly blah. Music director Joe Maubach's orchestra performs them splendidly, delivering a sound so full you'd never dream there were only eight musicians in the pit, but generally speaking, Brooks' music and lyrics just make you wish the show would get back to the book, even when you find yourself moderately disappointed in the book.
Music Guild's production came with its own specific moderate disappointments, including, unfortunately, Sodawasser, especially considering he looks a little like Gene Wilder and a lot like Will Ferrell - you see him as Frederick Frankenstein and just expect him to be hysterical. But while I wouldn't dare ask for Wilder-level genius, I would ask for more crazy; Sodawasser, delivering his lines with an understatement that comes dangerously close to neutrality, appears to think that Frederick is the show's straight man, and we've already got Inspector Kemp for that. (On Thursday, the only way you knew Frederick was ever losing it was because he spoke more quickly than usual.)
And while it was easy to forgive this final dress rehearsal's not-infrequent, filling-loosening body-mic screeches, it was a tad tougher to ignore a couple of performers' line flubs (in one instance, the word "train" was strangely substituted with "boat") and one truly weird bit in which Frederick demanded that the door near him be opened, when the door was actually seven feet to his left. But Turczynski more than made up for that with his brilliant staging of a medical procedure that involved a stapler, and his thoroughly well-sung production also boasted the man's noteworthy, Jenga-like set design and Zach Chaplain's sensational lighting, with the electrical flashes that momentarily blinded us the best kind of in-your-face effect.
Oh, yes, and there was Igor. Before seeing Music Guild's latest, which was my first exposure to the Young Frankenstein musical, I would've pitied any actor forced to follow in Marty Feldman's "walk this way" footsteps. Now I pity those forced to follow in Nate Karstens'. Employing a Cockney accent with scalpel-like comic precision, yet never appearing beholden to Feldman's choices, Karstens not only made me laugh out loud at routines I've known by heart for decades, but kept finding ways to surprise me. (Two of my heartiest cackles came from his loco reading of "There, wolf!" and the throwaway bit, which could easily have been missed, in which he picked up a dropped hoe and stood next to Frau Blücher in an imitation of Grant Wood's American Gothic.) One of the lyrics in Young Frankenstein's curtain-call number finds the cast yelling, "Maybe next year, Blazing Saddles!" If the overall winningness of Music Guild's current production can be trusted, and Karstens can be recruited, I'm on board if Brooks is.
Young Frankenstein runs at the Prospect Park Auditorium (1584 34th Avenue, Moline) through June 21, and more information and tickets are available by calling (309)762-6610 or visiting QCMusicGuild.com.