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Frankenstein: A New Musical

Frankenstein: A New Musical at Peoria Players Theatre

by Douglas Okey
Saturday, September 11, 2010

The 1980s have returned to Peoria Players Theatre in Frankenstein: A New Musical, directed by Eddie Urish. 

Frankenstein, of course, tells the story of Victor Frankenstein (in a solid performance by John Huerta), a Promethean scientist bent on creating life in his laboratory after the death of his mother (an imposing, matriarchal Barb Couri).  After abandoning his creation  in horror, Frankenstein watches helplessly as the Creature (a larger-than-life Roger Roemer) directly or indirectly murders everyone he loves: father Alphonse (in a dignified portrayal by Bill Ciardini); sister Lilly (a surprisingly powerful Ellie Urish); dear friend Henry (in a measured performance by Bryan Blanks); childhood friend Justine (a heart-breaking Carol Urish); and wife Elizabeth (a luminous Julie Boesch).

This story by Mark Baron, Jeffrey Jackson, and Gary P. Cohen adheres faithfully in many ways to Mary Shelley’s novel, which may be unfamiliar to patrons acquainted only with 1930s-era, lumbering-monster Boris Karloff films. PPT’s production reaches gloriously for achievement in the honorable tradition of melodrama but is ultimately held back by the material. The musical is a “New” (2007) work that still somehow manages to feel worn out. Cast voices are strong and melodic almost without exception, but the score is chock full of 1980s-style Andrew Lloyd Webber-esque bombast. What’s more, the show lacks memorable songs. Even Webber properties like Evita and Phantom of the Opera send us out of the theatre humming tunes like “Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina” and “Music of the Night.” A few minutes into our drive home, we couldn’t come up with any melodies from the evening.

Still, the cast and crew of Players’ production, under the able leadership of Urish, present a compelling performance. Travis Olson has designed and Ken Hupp built a beautiful, evocative Victorian-style set with multiple levels and a nineteenth-century raked stage. Included in the set are apparatuses for entrances above and below, along with dark, sooty staircases that recall Carol Reed’s 1968 film version of Oliver! Wayne Carey’s lighting plot admirably keeps pace with Urish’s kinetic blocking, making for an athletic performance by lighting operator Evan Moore. These are all complemented by Kathryn A. Johnson’s sumptuous costumes and the orchestra’s stirring accompaniment under the direction of Mitch Colgan.

Onstage performances are highlighted by Roemer as the Creature. Casting this physically imposing actor is an obvious choice, but Roemer’s portrayal rises above any such motivations. One suspects that an actor of more standard-issue physical size but with Roemer’s stage presence could still carry off the role with such moving expressions of anguish, grief, menace, and genuine pathos.

Not everything in the production works equally well. Urish’s use of multimedia wizardry only partially succeeds. Images on the large projection screen on stage sometimes work in sublime and frightening ways and sometimes come off as merely repetitious and distracting. Anachronism as a theatrical device, adroitly deployed, can jolt audiences out of their comfortable expectations and engender reflection; sometimes it’s just heavy-handed and jarring.

Overall, however, the evening is an enjoyable one. The company cannot be faulted for their solid execution of a hackneyed, disappointing property.