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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Monday, Nov. 24, 2014

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In Arts & Entertainment Commentary

Preston Truman Boyd and Christopher Ryan co-star in "Young Frankenstein," coming to the Marcus Center Nov. 2-7. (PHOTO: Paul Kolnik)

Marcus Center gets spooky with Brooks and Ballet


The night was one of my most memorable in three decades of reviewing theater.

Ten years ago Mel Brooks was trying out his stage musical adaptation of his 1968 hit movie "The Producers" in Chicago. He may have been a film legend, but he was also a Broadway novice.

"The Producers'' producers asked the press to stay away from the Cadillac Palace Theatre in Chicago until the engagement was 75 percent completed. They wanted to iron out the show's kinks.

The performance to which the critics were finally invited crackled with opening night excitement before the curtain rose. A group of New York theater people and celebs had flown in to see it. Sarah Jessica Parker, wife of "Producers" co-star Matthew Broderick, was tucked into a seat a couple of rows behind me.

Only a few minutes into the show, it became apparent that something very special was unfolding onstage. Brooks, director-choreographer Susan Stroman and the rest of the creative team had captured lightning in a bottle. Make that an entire lightning storm in a bottle.

The audience stood and applauded after individual musical numbers. An electric feeling sparked through the theater lobby during intermission. And when the large cast took the stage for its curtain call, everyone knew they were on their way to being in a monster Broadway hit.

A record 12 Tony's were bestowed on "The Producers" in 2001, and the musical remained on Broadway for six years.

Such success in a new medium must have been sweet for Brooks, who was 75 at the time. He composed all of the music as well as co-writing the book with "Annie" librettist Thomas Meehan.

But the over-the-top popularity of "The Producers" also presented him with a dilemma. Do you follow it up with another Broadway show, and if so, how?

Brooks turned to "Young Frankenstein," the 1974 film spoof he wrote with Gene Wilder, and he hired the same creative team that worked on "The Producers." The new show opened on Broadway seven months after the old one closed. The earth didn't move this time.

Reviews were mixed. Veteran critic Clive Barnes, writing in the New York Post, thought "Young Frankenstein" the movie was not as adaptable to the stage as "The Producers" and he called Brooks' show tunes "more ho-hum than hummable." But he liked the lyrics and the script written by Brooks and Meehan.

The New York Times' Ben Brantley admitted to finding some of the Brooksian gags "pretty funny." There wasn't much else he liked about the show.

Audiences were kinder. "Young Frankenstein" had a respectable Broadway run of 485 performances.

Soon Milwaukee theatergoers will be able to make their own judgment about the musical. A national touring company of "Young Frankenstein" plays the Marcus Center Nov. 2-7.

In an interview with the Chicago Tribune's Chris Jones a year ago, Brooks discussed with comic sarcasm the critics' lack of enthusiasm for "Frank."

"I understand. People were worried. Here he comes again. Are we going to have to suffer every movie that he's ever made being turned into a musical?" he told Jones.

The stratosphere of New York theater criticism can be less than fair to artists and shows. Did the overwhelming success of "The Producers" motivate some to take Brooks down a notch or two? I've observed that kind of thing happen in New York in the past.

Having not seen "Young Frankenstein," I don't have an opinion.

The Milwaukee Ballet Opens "Esmeralda"

Only a few days before Brooks' parody of horror films and grotesque human forms arrives at the Marcus Center, Quasimodo will be on the Uihlein Hall stage in "Esmeralda," the Milwaukee Ballet's opening offering of its 2010-11 season. The two productions are a classic comparison of the light and the dark.

"Esmeralda" is Milwaukee Ballet artistic director Michael Pink's reworking of his "The Hunchback of Notre Dame," which was last seen here in 2004. Based on the 1831 Victor Hugo novel of the same name, "Hunchback" the ballet has been staged around the world.

Pink says he has changed and added steps for "Esmeralda." A new lighting design has also been incorporated into the ballet. Philip Feeney's medieval score remains.

The new title refers to Esmeralda, the good and beautiful gypsy woman whom Quasimodo, among many men, loves. She becomes a tragic symbol of injustice in the ballet, which is very theatrical.

Pink believes that although Victor Hugo's story is set in the 15th century, it contains big social issues that resonate today.

Esmeralda will be portrayed by two of Milwaukee Ballet's leading artists, Julianne Kepley and Luz San Miguel. The ballet will be performed Oct. 28-31.


Talkbacks

WestSideWillie | Oct. 21, 2010 at 3:06 p.m. (report)

Mel Brooks and Susan Stroman? An exceptional combination. Looking forward to seeing the show at the MCPA. Will be a blast!

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