There is a terrible, pitiable creation in town. I’m not referring to the famous creature brought to life by Dr. Victor Frankenstein. I’m talking about Eric Sirota’s musical adaptation of Mary Shelly’s classic novel, Frankenstein, playing Monday nights at the St. Lukes Theater.
The Frankenstein story does not lend itself easily to being a musical. There’s no one in the story to root for, including Victor Frankenstein and his godlike ambitions. Most of the action consists of waiting for the creature to show up, running from him, or being killed by him. That’s all hard to sing about unless you’re doing a parody, like Young Frankenstein. Yes, there’s the love story between Victor and Elizabeth. But it’s not very interesting and neither are they. It’s not surprising that no version of this story has ever found its way into the musical theater canon.
From his bio, Sirota is clearly a brilliant man. He is a PhD in Physics whose day gig is as a research physicist. He has also studied music composition. But he admits that he is not formally schooled in playwriting or musical theater writing. So choosing to write the book, music and lyrics for such an ambitious project without that professional background shows about as much hubris as that of Victor Frankenstein himself. The resulting show, like Frankenstein’s Creature, is a patchwork of ill-fitting pieces, which is a long way from being fully functional.
This Frankensteinis the kind of largely sung through, pseudo-operatic musical which hopes to ride on the coattails of Les Mizand Phantom. Unfortunately, anything less than brilliant in that style generally comes off as ponderous and pretentious, and so does this one. The relentless, bass heavy underscoring sounds like the accompaniment to a silent movie melodrama. The music rarely coalesces into discernable songs and remains, mostly, just a lot of overwrought recitative. Sirota’s attempt to lighten the evening with a couple unfunny comedy songs also falls flat. His lyrics lack the emotional depth which make for compelling songs. They also frequently fail to line up rhythmically with the music. That poor prosody, as it is called, is a typical amateur failing which sets experienced ears like mine on edge.
Sirota lops off Shelley’s frame of Victor being rescued from frozen waters while in pursuit of the Creature, and bookends the story with Victor’s shock after the murder of his wife, Elizabeth, by the Creature. This does put the focus squarely on the arc of Victor and Elizabeth’s relationship, which is a good idea for a more romantic treatment of the story. But his all-too-sketchy, non-musical scenes interface uneasily with the sung through exposition, and are painfully, dramatically limp. He should have brought in a more experienced bookwriter. He still should get out of his own way and do that now, if he wants this show to have a life.
In the novel, we learn that the Creature has educated himself through reading Victor’s books, which accounts for his high sensibility and refined speech. That’s a far cry from the inarticulate monster we’ve come to expect from the classic movie treatments. But unless I missed it, we don’t learn that about the Creature from Sirota’s libretto. So, when the Creature speaks in an archaic, biblical style full of “thee” and “thou” when no one else talks that way, it makes absolutely no sense unless you’ve read the book first. The tourists seemed not to mind, however.
Sharing the St. Lukes stage with other shows puts big limitations on what any one show can do there physically. The cheap looking set by Matthew Imhoff, rawly lit with a handful of instruments by Maarten Cornelis, adds no particular production value or mood to the evening. The few actual period costumes, blended with 1970’s thrift store pieces by Jennifer Anderson, were another part of the disappointing design hodge podge.
J.C. McCann as the Creature doesn’t look very monstrous either. He sports shaggy hair and beard (grown for another show), two black eyes, and appears like an unwashed mountain man, rather than one of the undead. I was stunned to actually find a creature design makeup credit for Johna Mancini, whose makeup talents and credits are clearly in the world of fashion, and not in theatrical makeup.
This entire exercise in questionable taste is under the direction of Clint Hromsco. He does nothing as director-chorographer to create any real sense of passion, tension or dread in the action on stage. His staging of the two big scenes in the show, i.e., the resurrection of the Creature and Victor Frankenstein’s failed attempt to create a bride for him, are particularly lacking in dramatic impact.
Casting a vocally demanding show with non-union performers is always a challenge. As the hapless Victor Frankenstein, Kevin Rehrer often lumbers around the stage more awkwardly than the Creature, sings like a howling animal, and generally looks like he needs to go get a drink in a sports bar…although, in fairness, neither the direction nor the material helps him. The minor players will kindly go without mention.
However, there are a couple of shining lights in this production. As Elizabeth, Cait Kiley manages to bring a gentle charm to the role, and shows sensible restraint even when the dialogue must make her want to scream.
But the real draw of the evening is J.C. McCann as the Creature, his makeup notwithstanding. I love going to shows where I see a great young talent shine through even less than stellar material. He brings a pathos and gravitas to the role which holds our attention to the very end. He is also a fine young baritone who is clearly a star on the rise.
Hats off also to Musical Director Austin Nuckols, who manages to play the exhaustingly busy, solo keyboard score with precision and expression.
But in the end, I needed some of Dr. Frankenstein’s electroshock just to stay awake.