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YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN at O’Connell & Company’s new digs jolts Mel Brooks’ insanity from screen to stage… it’s alive!

THE BASICS: YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN, the musical by Mel Brooks (based on his 1974 film) presented by O’Connell & Company, directed by Kelli Bocock-Natale, runs through October 27, Thursdays through Saturdays at 7:30 p.m., Sundays at 2:30 at “new” Ken-Ton Elmwood Commons, (formerly “The Philip Sheridan School”) 3200 Elmwood Avenue  (848-0800). Enter off Elmwood (north of Sheridan Drive) and park in the back. Runtime: a little under 2-1/2 hours with one intermission. (Check out the very cool concession stand, and yes, they still offer wine)

THUMBNAIL SKETCH: This is a re-telling of the movie as a musical with all songs (other than Irving Berlin’s “Puttin’ on the Ritz”) by Mel Brooks. True to the film we meet young, successful Dr. Frankenstein (“It’s pronounced Fronken-STEEN”) in NYC lecturing to medical students when he is summoned to settle his grandfather’s estate. Leaving his uptight fiancée Elizabeth (“Please don’t touch me”) back home, he journeys to Transylvania where he meets all the beloved characters from the movie including Igor (that’s “EYE-gore”) with the mysterious moving hump, the buxom Inga (“What knockers!” “Why thank you doctor”), and the steely eyed Frau Blücher (cue SFX: horse’s bray). The good doctor is of course reluctant to continue his grandfather’s work (bringing the dead back to life) but this is a send-up of the horror movie genre, and what’s a good horror movie without a monster?

THE PLAYERS, THE PLAY, AND THE PRODUCTION: It’s a new venue for O’Connell and Company (OCC), which, founder Mary Kate O’Connell told me at intermission, had outgrown its smaller theater on the Park School campus which also needed more room. It was good for everyone as OCC was able to more than double its capacity (even after removing a number of seats) in the auditorium in the old “Philips Sheridan School” which the new developers are eager to turn into a multi-use senior housing and community center.

So OCC began their 25th season in style. Just as the Kavinoky Theatre had success with Mel Brooks’ THE PRODUCERS a few years back, in our current age of polarized high-anxiety OCC offered a welcome chance to bring some good, old-fashioned fun to a news-weary audience.

Timothy Goehrig and Jenny Marie McCabe sing Roll in the Hay

There are many ways to see what a good director does, and here Kelli Bocock-Natale did not miss a trick. The scene changes are crisp, characters stay consistent, all are completely present during their scenes, and the ensemble members are each given dozens of small cues and shtick, providing extra levels of entertainment. And what a supporting ensemble, both a men’s and a women’s quartet, made up of actors each of whom has had a leading role in other productions. It’s a “deep bench.” After 25 years running OCC, Mary Kate O’Connell has a very impressive Rolodex (that’s a “contact list” for you kids) and so does Kelli Bocock-Natale. Yes, she does.

Timothy Goehrig, who was so impressive as actor-singer-dancer last season in ART’s production of PARADE (earning him a well-deserved Artie nomination) once again completely inhabited his role here as the good doctor, reluctant, but unable to stop his desires. Joey Bucheker, whom we still talk about from his award-winning role as Nurse Candida in KILLER RACK, once again plays an eager, but one-slice-short-of-a-pizza assistant. Jenny Marie McCabe, last seen as Audrey in LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS, reprises that innocent but willing to help out the boy who has created a monster role. If you loved Terri Garr in the movie, you’ll love McCabe just as if you loved Cloris Leachman as Frau Blücher, you’ll love Pamela Rose Mangus in that role. Mangus excels as the tough-talking, seen-it-all broad whether she was the foul-mouthed pianist in THE FULL MONTY, or the objectionable Falstaff in MERRY WIVES, or John Adams in 1776. If you loved her as those characters, you’ll love her here.

Pamela Rose Mangus as Frau Blucher does some Fosse Cabaret shtick

Vanessa Dawson was in a difficult role as the cold and conceited Elizabeth (Dr. Frankenstein’s fiancée) who has an entourage with her at all times to do her nails, makeup, and hair. It’s a fascinating role from a plot perspective for many reasons, but here are just three: First, she establishes one third of the love triangle (the other two being the doctor and Inga) which is, in our time, the #1 most popular source of dramatic tension. Audiences can’t get enough. Second, Elizabeth and the doctor are engaged, and so she is part of his ordered, structured, responsible world. However, she is such a pill, and Inga is so charming, that of course we want the doctor and Inga to get together, but that creates cognitive dissonance in our minds, and the only way to resolve that is to break free of convention. And once we in the audience start severing connections with convention, it’s a slippery slope. Mel Brooks can now take us anywhere. And third, her character is very useful at the end of the show to deliver a message of inclusivity. Anyway, Ms. Dawson obviously relished the role.

John Kruezer plays the monster with gusto. And, I’d like to talk about actor Nick Lama, about whom several years ago, I’ll admit, I was iffy. Then last year in ALMOST, MAINE at Shea’s 710 I said “Damn, this guy has some comic chops.” Well, his Inspector Kemp in YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN is just spot on. Wow. Lama is runnin’ with the big dogs now and is just one of the many reasons to get over to this show before it closes at the end of the month.

Lama is runnin’ with the big dogs now and is just one of the many reasons to get over to this show before it closes at the end of the month.

The choreography by Tara Scime is delightful and quirky and who knew that all those people could, besides acting and singing, also tap dance? The scene changes were crisp, so kudos and thank you (many thank yous) to Michael Morog (Stage Manager) and Sarah Bos (Assistant SM). The set (Matt Myers, who was also on-stage as “Shadow”) was beyond creative (the “hayride” to the castle is a showstopper) and the costumes (and wigs?) by Rachel Maggs were a delight. Special kudos to lighting designer Jim Pritchard working with a combination of old and new equipment and Alley Griffen for a variety of props that added to the fun.

Villagers prepare to attack the monster with pitchforks and … plungers

One aspect that elevates a musical from good to great is the ensemble/chorus/supporting actors who immediately get into character, perform sharply but without upstaging the lead roles, and then change costumes and come right back a second later and do it again. So, normally, I might not list them, but they were all so damn good, why not? They were: Jon May, Heather Casseri, Sydney Conrad, Matthew Gilbert, Sabrina Kahwaty, Susan Laxton, Sean Murphy and David Wysocki.

And a word about the musicians. In general, I’m a believer that “more is better” but Bret Runyon was all over that keyboard and was ably assisted by three “accent” players who made up the “pit band” and added just the right notes to bring the music alive. They were Gretchen Fisher, violin; Colin Doherty, reeds, and Teressa-Jo (TJ) Izzo, trumpet. Well done.

If a trek to Transylvania is outside your budget, then drive, Uber, or take a hay wagon and make the trip to 3200 Elmwood for some silly fun.

Photos courtesy O’Connell & Company.

UP NEXT: A CLOSER WALK WITH PATSY CLINE, six performances only from November 29 through December 8, 2019 at Shea’s Smith Theatre (next door to the main stage on Main Street) in which a disc jockey traces the career of the legendary country & western singer who died tragically young. Given the popularity of the recent PBS airing of Ken Burns’ eight-part documentary film “Country Music” this should be well-attended. And, in case you were wondering, this will have many of the same songs as, but a different set up than, ALWAYS, PATSY CLINE last seen at the Kavinoky Theatre years ago, which showed the “kitchen table” friendship between Patsy Cline and Houston housewife Louise Seger.

*HERD OF BUFFALO (Notes on the Rating System)

ONE BUFFALO: This means trouble. A dreadful play, a highly flawed production, or both. Unless there is some really compelling reason for you to attend (i.e. you are the parent of someone who is in it), give this show a wide berth.

TWO BUFFALOS: Passable, but no great shakes. Either the production is pretty far off base, or the play itself is problematic. Unless you are the sort of person who’s happy just going to the theater, you might look around for something else.

THREE BUFFALOS: I still have my issues, but this is a pretty darn good night at the theater. If you don’t go in with huge expectations, you will probably be pleased.

FOUR BUFFALOS: Both the production and the play are of high caliber. If the genre/content are up your alley, I would make a real effort to attend.

FIVE BUFFALOS: Truly superb–a rare rating. Comedies that leave you weak with laughter, dramas that really touch the heart. Provided that this is the kind of show you like, you’d be a fool to miss it!

Written by Peter Hall

Peter Hall

Peter Hall continues trying to figure out how "it" all works. For over 20 years, as a producer and program host on WNED Classical (94.5 FM), he's conducted over 1,000 interviews with artists as he asks them to explain, in layman's terms, "what's the big picture here?" These days Peter can be heard regularly on Sunday afternoons from 1 to 5.

On “Theater Talk” (heard Friday mornings at 6:45 and 8:45 a.m. on WBFO 88.7 FM) his favorite question of co-host Anthony Chase is simply "What's goin' on?" As mentioned recently in Buffalo Spree magazine, Peter's "Buffalo Rising reviews are the no-holds barred 'everyman's' take."

A member of Buffalo's Artie Awards Committee, Peter holds a B.A. in Comparative Literature from Columbia University and an M.B.A. from SUNY at Buffalo. For over twenty-five years he was an adjunct professor for Canisius College’s Richard J. Wehle School of Business.

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