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A CurtainUp Review

Additional Commentary By Elyse Sommer

What hope has a being whose creator so desperately wishes to destroy it? That he would pursue it. . . even to his own death?

.—Creature (standing over the dying body of Victor Frankenstein.
Hunter Foster  in Frankenstein
Hunter Foster as Victor (Photo: H. E. Yhoman)
Those two words "It's alive,," as shouted by Victor Frankenstein, are assuredly recognized by the enormous fan base of Mary Shelly's novel Frankenstein or, The Modern Prometheus, as well as by those who have thrilled to the more than 100 films adapted from that source. The novel, as well as the films and a significant number of stage adaptations, continues to thrill and frighten generations of adults and children eager and willing to surrender to its nightmarish charms.

Here, in the new musical Frankenstein, we have a creature that is not only alive but speaks with a literate acumen and sings some heavy duty arias with a resounding brio. However, " It's alive" is graciously allowed to be part of the sparse spoken recitative in the mainly sung-through score by Mark Baron (music) and Jeffrey Jackson (book & lyrics). That I am obliged, however, to consider the score's value and artistic merit puts me at risk for being insensitive to the musical genre to which it aspires.

The score is certainly the driving force behind this musical since it was first conceived a number of years ago. To these ears, the score's twenty or so arias, plus a number of reprises, are notable for being essentially and conventionally derivative of the pop operas of the 1980s. While it smacks of earnest musicianship, it is oppressively loud and stirring without being appealing. Credit can go to Jackson's earnest lyrics for their unwavering commitment to the story and their success in complimenting the music. An example from Victor's aria: " The Coming of the Dawn, /Having Strayed So Far From Home/ I Deserve To Stand Alone/For While I Chased The Secrets Of The Night/ I Never Saw The Beauty In The Light. " But why in the world are head mikes needed in such a small theater. The cast members, with those antenna-like protrusions curving around their faces, all look like aliens from another world.

Unlike Mel Brooks' musical parody that is about to open on Broadway this is a commendably faithful adaptation (based on Shelley's own final 1841 rewrite) by Gary P. Cohen. It contains virtually all of the novel's key points, perhaps dramatized a bit too sketchily. It's also good that most audiences will have a fair idea of the story, as it allows for a better understanding of Victor's obsessive drive to learn the answers to life and death, the reasons his marriage to his family's ward Elizabeth is doomed, and what motivates his compulsive pursuit of the creature to the northern tip of the world.

As smartly directed by Bill Fennelly, the story unfolds with clarity and, except for the occasional but obligatory crashes of thunder and bolts of blinding lighting, without a lot of gimmickry. Don't expect to see a cluttered laboratory with countless bottles bubbling away or sparks of electrical currents shooting out from gadgets into the creature's brain. You may be impressed, as I was, by the simplicity of the staging and how effective it is as much by implication as by its musically distilled narrative.

This grand looking, impressively conceived production relies on a unit set. As designed by Kevin Judge, there is a huge and imposing diagonal stairway, a large screen on stage left onto which is projected some lovely images that indicate various locales. There's also an open space on stage right as well as an upstage area for some fine visual effects which particularly serve as a showcase for the lighting designer Thom Weaver whose work is especially notable in an early scene when only the scary, looming shadow of the creature is seen after it has escaped from Victor's laboratory.

The casting of Hunter Foster, as the brilliant but highly unorthodox scientist Victor Frankenstein is an unusual choice, but not because he lacks either dramatic or musical ability. Notwithstanding his exuberant performances as Seymour in Little Shop of Horrors and as Bobby Strong in Urinetown, he seems, for all his prescribed ranting and raving, unable to shake off being rather cute and adorable. Nevertheless, he sings the preponderance of his angst-driven arias with gusto.

Steve Blanchard is an imposing Creature standing as he should head and shoulders above his creator. Blanchard's broad heaving bared chest, his flailing hands and lumbering gait are defining as are the more poignant moments when he is able to express the anger and unhappiness of this more complexly characterized creature. He gets our sympathy in the scene in which he eagerly awaits his mate's first breath of life only to be sent into deep despair when Victor murders her after realizing that the woman he has just brought to life is mentally deranged.

As Elizabeth, the attractive Christiane Noll has a lustrous soprano voice. She encourages our empathy in a number of arias, but most beautifully with the plaintive "The Workings of the Heart," as sung with Victor. She looks lovely in the purple and white gowns designed by Emily Pepper. For the most part, however, Pepper's costumes reflect the musical's predominantly gray palette.

Eric Michael Gillett, as Victor's father; Becky Barta, as Victor's mother; Struan Erlenborn, as Victor's younger brother; Mandy Bruno, as the boy's governess; and Jim Stanek, as Victor's friend Henry, are all given their ration of vivid and stressful moments. They also help to fill up the stairway while providing the choral embroidery the score heavily relies upon. There is no denying that the collaborators have fulfilled their objective to honor Shelly's horrific masterpiece. Would that the music had the heft to break our heart, even as it chilled our bones.

Additional Commentary by Elyse Sommer

Curtainup has reviewed several intriguing plays based on the Mary Shelley novel: Neil Bell's Monster and Flying Machine's Frankenstein. Also still vivid in my memory is Howard Brenton's Bloody Poetry, an exquisitely staged factional drama about two immortals of the Romantic Age, Lord Byron and Percy Bysshe Shelley, and the women they loved (and abused), one of whom was of course, Mary Shelley. Naturally I went to see this musical adaptation filled with curiosity and hope.

Like Simon Saltzman, I was impressed with this musical's imaginative staging. I would also single out the silhouetted figures seen in the upstage area as further examples of lighting designer Thom Weaver's wizadry. Kudos too is in order for the way Michael Clark's terrific projected images expand the sense of time and place.

I would add that the abundance of Frankenstein movies Simon mentioned are still available via Amazon and Netflix, while the Shelley's novel, which has recently been something of a favorite with book clubs, is availabe free on line at Project Gutenberg.

As for those unsightly head mikes, I agree. Since, realistically speaking, you're unlikely to find a musical performance without amplification anywhere except the Metropolitan Opera or at one of Scott Siegel's one-night "unplugged " concerts at Town Hall, I can't help wondering why the director and his technical elves didn't opt for the less in-your-face acoustical buttons which also tend to soften the sound.

Hunter Foster is indeed stuck (at least for another few years) with being cute and adorable so that his casting of Victor is as Simon observed, atypical. However, I had more of a hard time getting used to Steve Blanchard's Creature. Not that I couldn't accept a more human Creature without a lot of monster effects or that I don't find Blanchard a powerful performer. In fact, he's a little too powerful, and, dare I say, charismatic. That bare-chested leather outfit suggests a rock star as much, if not more than a monster.

This is a daring venture: A pop-operatic largely sung-through contemporary musical that may get a marketing boost from the other Frankenstein (Mel Brooks' musical based on his cult film spoof) but is likely to be eclipsed by it. . .staging at a venue considered by some off the beaten path (though it's really a short walk from subway or bus stops and in a booming neighborhood). What's more the show defies superstition with a cast that numbers— you guessed it— 13!.

Inspired by Mary Shelley's epic.
Music by Mark Baron
Book & Lyrics by Jeffrey Jackson
Original Story Adaptation by Gary P. Cohen
Direction by Bill Fennelly.
Cast (alphabetical order): Becky Barta (Caroline, Victor's Mother),Steve Blanchard (A Condemned Man/The "Creature"), Mandy Bruno (Justine Moritz, William's Governess), Erin Clark (Agatha, The Blind Man's Daughter Casey),Struan Erlenborn (William, Victor's Young Brother), Hunter Foster (Victor Frankenstein),Eric Michael Gillett (Alphonse Frankenstein, Victor's Father), Christiane Noll (Elizabeth Lavenza), Aaron Serotsky (Capt. Robert Walton, A Blind Man), Jim Stanek (Henry Clerval), Nick Cartell. Leslie Henstock, Patrick Mellen (Various Other Characters)
Musicians: Stephen Purdy-Conductor/Keyboard John Bowen-Keyboard; Martyn Axe-Keyboard; Greg Giannascoli - Drums/Percussion; Alan Cohen-Guitar; Hugh Mason-Bass.
Scenic Design: Kevin Judge
Costume Design: Emily Pepper
Lighting Design: Thom Weaver
Sound Design: Domonic Sack & Carl Casella
Projection Design: Michael Clark
Orchestrations: Richard DeRosa & Mark Baron
Music Coordinator: Alan Cohen
Music Direction: Stephen Purdy
Choreography: Kelly Devine
Running Time: 2 hours including one intermission
37 arts, 450 West 37th Street, www.frankensteinthemusical.com212-307-4100.
From 10/10/07; opening 11/01/07. Closing 12/09/07
Monday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday at 8PM; Wednesday and Sunday at 3 PM; and Saturdays at 2 PM.
Tickets: $41.25 - $69.25
Reviewed by Simon Saltgzman at October 29th press preview, sidebar by Elyse Sommer after October 31st press preview
Musical Numbers
Act One
  • Prelude /Capt. Walton, Victor Frankenstein, Company
  • A Golden Age Company
  • Amen /A condemned man, Victor, Company
  • Birth to My Creation / Victor
  • Dear Victor /Elizabeth, Victor
  • The Hands of Time /Elizabeth, Henry, Justine, William
  • Your Father's Eyes /Alphonse Frankenstein
  • The Creature's Tale/ the Creature
  • The Waking Nightmare /the Creature
  • The Music of Love /the blind man, Agatha, the Creature
  • Why? /William, Justine, the Creature, Victor, Company
  • The Proposition /Victor, the Creature
Act Two
  • A Happier Day / Company
  • The Modern Prometheus /Victor, Henry, the Creature
  • The Hands of Time (reprise)/ Elizabeth, Victor
  • The Workings of the Heart /Elizabeth, Victor, Company
  • An Angel's Embrace /the Creature
  • The Workings of the Heart (reprise) / Victor
  • Your Father's Eyes (reprise) /Alphonse
  • These Hands /the Creature
  • The Chase /Victor, Company
  • The Coming of the Dawn /Victor
  • Amen (reprise) /the Creature, Victor
  • The Sorrow Born of Dreams /Company

  • The  Playbill Broadway YearBook
    The Playbill Broadway YearBook

    Leonard Maltin's Classic Movie Guide
    Leonard Maltin's 2007 Movie Guide


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