As Max Bialystock and Leo Bloom learned to their detriment, even the most witless musical comedy can make a bundle.
The shameless hucksters at the center of Mel Brooks's "The Producers" found this out when "Springtime for Hitler," their toe-tapping salute to der Führer, became the toast of Broadway. (The detriment, you may recall, stemmed from their having sold 25,000% of the profits instead of the usual 100%.) Bialystock and Bloom, who first hatched their scheme in Mr. Brooks's 1968 uproarious film and later conquered Broadway themselves in 2001, may have been crooks, but they weren't fools: They knew that "Springtime" was a crass, unfunny turkey.
What's Mel Brooks's excuse vis-à-vis "Young Frankenstein"?
Mr. Brooks, director Susan Stroman, and the rest of the creative team behind "The Producers" — the Tony-winningest show in history, lest you forget — have conspired to bring us this shrill, misbegotten, deeply cynical enterprise. Spooky lightning may flash and rumble throughout "Young Frankenstein," but compared to the polished vibrancy of its predecessor, it never strikes the same place twice.
It's hard to determine exactly where this latest attempt goes so grievously astray. "Young Frankenstein," Mr. Brooks's 1974 black-and-white spoof of the 1930s Universal monster movies, was certainly more scattershot than his "The Producers" or "Blazing Saddles," but it featured a much sharper visual aesthetic than either of those films. ("The Producers," by contrast, looked like a play on film, which may be why it fared so well on stage.) And Mr. Brooks — who is also credited as composer, lyricist, co-librettist, and co-producer on this latest version — and Ms. Stroman have stuffed the cast with reliable comic actors who stood a legitimate chance of being heard, seen, and enjoyed over Robin Wagner's massive spookhouse sets.
But with the exception of about a dozen jokes (nearly all of which were pulled verbatim from the film) and an Act II showstopper, the final product has a shockingly lackadaisical, dashed-off quality that no amount of whiz-bang stagecraft can conceal. It's as if the fruits of an early, not terribly fruitful brainstorming session were lavished with literally millions of dollars. Mercifully, some of that money went to a passel of New York's most solid comic performers, who wring heroic amounts of humor from threadbare material like this:
FRAU BLUCHER: I wonder what they're doing up there?
IGOR: I think he's doing an experiment in female anatomy and she's assisting his brains out.
That wince-inducing exchange, conducted between two of Doctor Frankenstein's Transylvanian cronies, pairs off an enormously promising young actor named Christopher Fitzgerald with the inestimable sketch-comedy legend Andrea Martin. The two deploy opposite levels of energy — wild-eyed fervor for Mr. Fitzgerald, confident stillness for Ms. Martin — but each puts winning glosses on every single line they're handed. Megan Mullally performs comparable feats as Frankenstein's snooty fiancée, making a galumphing bit of doggerel called "Please Don't Touch Me" sound like a lost Tin Pan Alley treasure, and Shuler Hensley stomps, growls, and tap dances memorably as the monster. (It helps that Mr. Hensley's showpiece, a can-you-top-this rendition of "Puttin' on the Ritz" that embellishes the film version agreeably, features a jouncing, lyrically ingenious Irving Berlin song as opposed to the tedious pastiche that Mr. Brooks has strewn elsewhere.)
Sadly, however, the shrewd casting does not extend to its Doctor Frankenstein. Roger Bart (the lisping Carmen Ghia from "The Producers") has been square-pegged into the straight-man role, one for which he is particularly ill suited. Rather than attempting to rein in the surrounding madcaps until the effort occasionally reduces him to hysterics, which would have recalled Gene Wilder in the film, Mr. Bart performs nearly every scene in an exasperated shriek that brings to mind an unmodulated Nathan Lane. When Frankenstein bellows his dream of "bestowing animation on lifeless matter," the task rings all too true in Mr. Bart's case. And while he bristles at his relatively sedate role, Sutton Foster finds none of her many attributes called upon as the comely assistant Inga; Ms. Foster looks ill at ease throughout and neglects to land even the few laughs Mr. Brooks has provided her.
And not only is Ms. Stroman unable to put over this dreary new material, she even fails to do right by the original. Several gags — Igor's head bobbing among a collection of skulls, the klutzy pas de deux between the monster and a blind hermit — ape the film's signature moments with a fraction of the timing and physical clarity. Even her choreography suffers: Such critically lambasted past efforts as "Thou Shalt Not" and "A Christmas Carol" had more going on upstairs than the cavorting-rustics pabulum she offers up throughout "Young Frankenstein." ("Spamalot," another recent musical that benefits from intimate knowledge of its source material, opens with this sort of thing — purely as a joke.) Act I contains not one but two sequences introduced awkwardly with a line about "the latest new dance craze," to say nothing of a chorus number titled "Welcome to the Family" that is as tiresome as anything Ms. Stroman has produced.
So let's summarize: a character actor stuck in a lead role, a leading actress stuck in a comic role, a handful of underused scene stealers straining to leave their marks, a glut of extraneous and uninventive dance numbers, old jokes that were funnier in the movie, new jokes that wouldn't have warranted a polite grin at a 1964 Friars roast, an uninspired pastiche score, and even worse lyrics. Let's hope Mr. Brooks, who has broken Max Bialystock's cardinal rule and put his own money into "Young Frankenstein," didn't sell himself more than 100% of the profits. Anything this bad just might be a hit.
Open run (213 W. 42nd St., between Broadway and Eighth Avenue, 212-307-4100).