This sentence is not shouted in a maniac, triumphant voice, as it is typically presented in pop culture. Instead, the scientist whispers it fearfully and almost reverently. And that which is alive is not a green monster with bolts through his head, but a man.
These are just some of the surprises in the off-Broadway musical Frankenstein, currently playing at the 37 Arts Theatre. Faithfully adapted from Mary Shelley’s novel, this sweeping musical, in which almost every word is sung, is a dark, morally complex, challenging story with a great deal of relevance to current society.
Unlike the many film adaptations of the novel, this Frankenstein is not driven by the horror of a monster created by a mad scientist, but instead by the internal workings of the man who created him and the social and moral consequences of that creation.
Victor Frankenstein (Hunter Foster) is a bright young boy who goes to college to study the sciences. After he loses his mother to scarlet fever, he becomes fixated with the idea of stopping death, in order to better the world. He creates a Creature (Steve Blanchard) and brings him to life, then promptly attempts to kill him. Months later, the Creature finds Frankenstein and the two begin a battle that lasts for the rest of their lives.
In an attempt to remain true to Shelley’s work, the show explores the numerous themes that the novel addresses – creation, morality, spirituality, responsibility, humanity, the seeking of greatness, and the condemnation of society – and it sets them all to music. While this attempt is admirable, it is also overwhelming in this setting and the show begs to be simplified, so more focus can be given to fewer aspects of the story.
Is Victor Frankenstein a man to be admired or condemned? He states repeatedly that he wants to make to make the world a better place. But he shuns those who love him and tarnishes his family’s good name while attempting to do so. The baby-faced Foster gives Frankenstein an endearing innocence combined with a surprising astuteness as he attempts to fit the effect of thousands of words into a few minutes of song, but the endearing factor wears thin quickly, and his repeatedly introspective ballads quickly move from admirable to tiresome.
As the Creature, Steve Blanchard presents a hulking, strapping man who speaks (and sings) with great effort and eloquence. Much of his stage time is devoted to explaining his character and the anguish and torment that he experiences as he attempts to function in the world. Blanchard’s tall, hulking frame and deep, sweet voice suit the character well, but at times his singing feels robotic. His words convey his anguish and fury, but his delivery of them fails to do so. Perhaps that is his intent, but a character with so much physical strength requires a voice that collaborates.
Frankenstein’s childhood sweetheart is played by the glorious Christiane Noll, who gives her as much spirit and gravity that is possible for such an underwritten part. Jim Stanek as Frankenstein’s best friend who is a Catholic priest, Mandy Bruno as the family’s maid, and Eric Michael Gillet as Frankenstein’s father all provide strong support onstage, but at times their interspersed melodies are repetitious and simply unnecessary, as if they are repeating an aspect of the show for the audience to absorb, just in case it didn’t pick up on it the first time around.
It is because of this vast material that the story feels rushed at times, and the numerous moral complexities are lost in the story. Victor’s decision to create the Creature does not feel explored thoroughly enough, nor do his actions following this. He repeatedly states his confusion, as well as his feeling that he has gone too far to turn back, but these emotions do not feel solidified, resulting in him being less sympathetic than is required for such a show.
Frankenstein is not the hero of the story, nor is his Creature; in this type of tale, there is no hero, nor is there a villain. The decision of who to sympathize with is left to the audience, and the answers may vary greatly, due to their relevance to society nowadays. The story of Frankenstein is centuries old, but it possesses a poignant timeliness, strongly resonating in society when the headlines are filled with stem-cell research, cloning and chemical warfare, where the battles that Victor fought – both internal and external – are still being fought today.