Frankenstein: the New Musical: Talent at Stage Door Inc. Can't Breathe Life into this Script

The set-up:

The iconic story of the Creature brought to life in Mary Shelley's novel has long captured the human imagination, leading to scores of dramatic stage and film adaptations -- even a Nintendo game and a pinball table. 2007 off-B'way musical Frankenstein: the New Musical hews more closely to the novel than many of them, but it's an open question whether that constraint helps more than it hinders.

The execution:

The familiar story here is a tale of scientific reanimation, rather than an assembling of body parts -- Victor Frankenstein brings a hanged criminal back to life. The costumes indicate the 18th century, and the handsome set built largely of weathered wood can suggest either an aristocratic estate or a fog-laden dock, though it does fall short for the arctic scenes. The atmosphere is there, smoke curls from the stage, adroit lighting deepens the shadows or simulates an electric arc, and a talented, large cast is available to create the magic that is theater.

The good news is that the Creature is strongly acted by Justin Nicholson, who delivers a performance that is powerful and interesting, though his slouching gait is too reminiscent of Quasimodo, and his crouching posture diminishes his authority. Nicholson's downstage solo song in Act two is a standout, and the stage comes to life when he menaces his way onto it. Victor is portrayed by Travis Hamilton, who fails to provide the fire of an obsessive scientific genius, though he does roll his eyes. He seems understated, and I was reminded of Leslie Howard, though the role calls for the power of a Rhett Butler. This is especially unfortunate in the final quarter of the work, which is intended to be a titanic duel between Victor and the Creature, but Victor has never established the authority to make this match worth watching. Hamilton has matinee idol looks, with a sweet demeanor, and might be fine in another role, but he is miscast here, and his soft voice sometimes couldn't be heard above the music.

Elizabeth, Victor's fiancée and then wife, is played by Leslie Sharp, and she is excellent. Her voice can lure you in with soft, bell-like clarity, and then surprise by belting a lyric, a la Merman. She created a plausible and sympathetic character, and her scenes are vivid and empathetic. Mike McDermott plays Victor's father with aristocratic style, and Erin Butler does well as Justine, a nurse whose part swells unexpectedly. Adrian "AJ" Escareno plays the much younger brother of Victor, still a child, with quiet charm. The rest of the cast largely serves as chorus, with their characters not developed. The Creature's brutal behavior toward others forestalls much sympathy for him, and a final rapprochement between him and Victor is written for pathos but comes across as embarrassing.

The music by Mark Baron is atmospheric, but the flatness of the lyrics by Jeffrey Jackson, without wit or rhythm, prevents it from being haunting. The script by Jackson and Gary P. Cohen is slow, pedestrian, lacking tension despite brutality, except for the well-staged hangings, which are effective and theatrical. The characterizations are so inexplicable that the mind reels, wondering, "Why on earth is this happening?" (Oh, that's right - it was in the book.) The musical is directed by Stage Door Artistic Director Marc Glover, who has a gift for creating exciting ensemble acting. But the ensemble here is lugubrious; even party scenes seem subdued and joyless. Glover's rich talents cannot breathe life into this script, which should have been labeled DOA. The dialogue has an oddly stilted quality, probably intended to seem elevated, but instead it has a stultifying effect. While the script adheres closely to the ground-breaking novel, that sound you hear is not the ordinary Gothic scream - it is Mary Shelley spinning in her grave.

The verdict:

Some gifted actors manage to create a few memorable moments, but a pedestrian script, a miscast lead, and meaningless motivations anchor the work in mediocrity - you can't soar like an eagle when you're flocking with a turkey.

Frankenstein: the New Musical, continues through September 23 at Stage Door, Inc., 284 Pasadena Town Square Mall. For information or ticketing, call 832-582-7606 or visit the company website.

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