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New Phoenix Theatre’s ‘Young Frankenstein’ no trick, all treat


Tonight Young Frankenstein enters its final weekend at New Phoenix Theatre. There isn’t a better show around in the lead up to Halloween. With music and lyrics by Mel Brooks and astonishing vocal performances by Bill Shideler, Tricia Hennessy, Cindi Heimberg and Nikki Hagel, this show is no trick and all treat.

The production is anchored by Shideler, Hennessy and Johnson. Shideler plays the reluctant monster-maker Frederick Frankenstein (pronounced Fron-kin-steen), who inherits his grandfather’s castle – and ambition to conquer death and give life. Ditching his self-absorbed fiancée at the dock, Freddie travels to Transylvania with every intention of selling the musty old mansion, but granddad’s happy hunchback, Igor (pronounced Eye-Gore), affably played by Ken Johnson, has other plans. While the way to a man’s heart may lie through his stomach, the man with the migrating hump provides his new master with an even tastier morsel. Her name is Inga and the beautiful, vivacious and easily-enamored lab assistant is fetchingly played by Hennessy, an exquisite songstress whose singing is exceeded only by her orgasmic yodeling and leggy seduction scene.

Shideler, Johnson and Hennessy have unmatched chemistry, not only with each other but the rest of Director Brenda Kensler’s ensemble cast.

Cindi Heimberg is frightfully fearsome in the role of the fiddler, Frau Blucher. In addition to terrific vocals, Heimberg infuses her lovelorn character with wistful morbidity that renders her as sympathetic as she is imposing. (After all, the mere mention of her name causes horses to whinny and neigh in panic.)

Nikki Hagel goes from Rocky Horror maid to blueblooded Manhattan debutante. Oh, the outfits! The entourage! The hair! Hagel is splendid as the aristocratic Elizabeth Benning and exhibits some of the best vocals in a production dominated by exceptional singers.

Whether or not you like fluorescent green, you’ll fall head over heels for Greg Wojciechowski, the creature with a Lazarus complex. Playing the Monster may not come with a heavy line load, but Wojciechowski stands out by dint of the platform shoes that are required for the part. Greg handles his character’s arc from Monster to dapper Man-About-Town with the aplomb and panache of Fred Astaire, speaking of which, his tap number in “Puttin on the Ritz” is a definitive show stopper.

While on the subject of tap, Gerrie Benzing channels her inner Eleanor Torrey Powell in that same dance number. No doubt, she’ll treasure her dance photos for years, but audiences will never forget her frightened villager scream of the banshee in “He’s Loose.” Vincent Price had nothing on Benzing, who could make a fortune recording that wail for Disney’s Haunted Mansion or Busch Gardens’ Howl-O-Scream.

Young Frankenstein does not purport to be heavy on theme, but it does stand for the proposition that if you treat people with kindness, they’ll respond in kind. The writers make this point at the beginning of Act Two, in a scene (“Please Send Me Someone”) between Wojciechowski’s Monster and Michael Murphy’s kindhearted hermit. It’s an endearing encounter between two fine actors, filled with mirthful hilarity as the blind recluse pours soup and then brandy for his humble-hovel guest.

Like Benzing and Murphy, Trace Meier, Jesse Stauffer and Jackie Patterson play a number of roles, which contribute not only to the action, but the overall entertainment value of this fun and frivolous show.

There is a final character in this show that warrants a shout-out, namely the set. In Young Frankenstein, that comes in the form of the scenes that are projected onto a screen behind the actors. In a word, they’re fabulous. They set the tone, enhance the mood and compliment the action unfolding on the stage. For this we have Scott Carpenter to thank. He deserves to join the cast in the final bow.

We are blessed in Southwest Florida with numerous choices when it comes to theater. But if you’re looking for a Halloween-themed show that’s pure fun and entertainment, Young Frankenstein is just the ticket. No trick, all treat. But there are just four more performances, beginning tonight at 8:00 p.m.

October 21, 2021.

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