Note to Mary Shelley fans: Frankenstein, the musical adaptation of the lady’s 1818 novel, Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus, beats Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein to the starting bell if not to the punch. The Jeffrey Jackson-Mark Baron effort certainly doesn’t beat Brooks to the punchline, because the creators are in no mood to be satirical. Working from an adaptation by Gary P. Cohen of the original story, they’ve made an attempt to be as faithful as possible to Shelley’s ultra-solemn cautionary tale. The intention may be honorable, but the results are as lumbering as the Frankenstein monster’s gait.
From the get-go, it’s plain as the mic arms curling around the faces of the cast members that the people responsible for this endeavor have taken a lingering look at the Jekkie-fomenting Jekyll & Hyde tuner. Once again what’s on commercial offer is a heavy dose of woe-unto-him-who-presumes-to-play-God subject matter. The team has also cribbed from other musicalized public-domain novels that do boffo box office — Phantom of the Opera and Les Miserables are the first two that spring blaringly to mind.
Maybe librettist-lyricist Jackson and composer Baron are hoping to draft a battalion of Frankies with their close approximation of the money-making predecessors. Lighting designer Thom Weaver has certainly kept the stage gloomy enough. And — credit where it’s deserved — set designer Kevin Judge and production designer Michael Clark (who has taken some inspiration from M. C. Escher prints) give the show the only true elegance it achieves. Well, costumer Emily Pepper, keeping to the primarily black-white-and-red color scheme, has also been canny enough to put scientist Victor Frankenstein (Hunter Foster) in a red-lined coat and the creature (Steve Blanchard) in a torn red-lined leather jacket. In this way, she manages subliminally to suggest the two figures are inextricably linked.
But, oh, the approach to the grim tale! No levity allowed, as Dr. Frankenstein — believing he’s discovered the gift of life — creates a man from collected parts, only to discover he hasn’t fully thought the formula through. The hulking outcome of his experiment is — in careful line with Shelley’s narrative — a misunderstood thing deserving sympathy. But he also can’t stop himself from killing several innocents in his path. Among victims crushed in his steely arms are Dr. Frankenstein’s doting bride Elizabeth (Christiane Noll) and his younger brother, William (Struan Erlenborn). Poor William’s kind-hearted governess Justine (Mandy Bruno) is framed by the creature for the lad’s murder, and her fate is to become the unfortunate intended bride of Frankenstein.
To heighten the unrelenting sturm and drang — as if it needed to be heightened — Jackson and Baron have ordered by the yard from the Andrew Lloyd Webber-Frank Wildhorn catalog. Even if you haven’t heard these obstreperous anthems and threnodies before, you’ve heard them before. The songsmiths do pay an extra tribute to Mary Shelley by calling one of the many ditties “The Modern Prometheus.” On the other hand, they do her no favor by being ungrammatical, as in this clumsy lyric: “Love can weather any storm/If you trust in you and I.” Both Dr. Frankenstein and the creature get to hammer the audience over the head with ham-fisted laments.
The redeeming feature on this account is that the voices raised in woozy song are so thrilling. Few woulda thunk round-faced and often goofy Foster of Urinetown: The Musical, Little Shop of Horrors and The Producers had this kind of range and power — even if he doesn’t ultimately impress as the haunted laboratory habitue. No surprise that equally forceful blasts come from Blanchard, who warmed up for this beast by playing Beauty and the Beast. But the guy — chiseled torso gleaming — spends a large amount of warbling time literally beating up on himself. Noll, Bruno, Jim Stanek (as a haranguing priest representing the religious stand against such lab arrogance) — all sound great, even if they’re not otherwise shown off to good advantage.
Ever since its initial publication, Frankenstein has lent itself to various interpretations, one of them that Frankenstein and his manufactured killer are two components of the same psyche. Perhaps the oldest implication is as an argument against man’s fiddling around with nature. Curiously, this Frankenstein — which includes the sung phrase “Who dares to act as God?” — might be taken nowadays as an endorsement of the far right’s stand against stem-cell research. That may not be the authors’ purpose, but there it is. More to the point, though, this Bill Fennelly-directed Frankenstein — constructed of implants from other musicals — is like Shelley’s creature: well-meant but only an awkward facsimile of the real thing.