Lindon’s Valley Center Playhouse, long known for producing amusing, family-friendly shows, continues that tradition with its two Halloween shows: “Hotel Frankenstein” and “Shadowbrook Mansion.”
Running Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays and appearing for its 17th year at Valley Center Playhouse is “Hotel Frankenstein,” by Michael Goodman. This well-written play is about Dr. Frankenstein’s modern-day grandson (Kevin Bennett) who, with Egor (Kent Flowers; double-cast on alternating nights with Doug Dial), plans to bring a monster to life using the brain of another person. By turning the Castle Frankenstein into a bed-and-breakfast, they lure in the vacationing Woodknocker family and plan to steal the brain of the father, Julius (Mike Bawden; double-cast with Mike Gray), a Groucho Marx-impersonating professional comedian who lives his life as if he were always onstage.
Complicating matters is the arrival of Dracula (Thom J. Engstrom; double-cast with Chad Robertson) and his wife, Natasha (Stephanie Gray), as well as the Wolfman, Lawrence Talbot III (Brad Andrus). Frankenstein enlists all of their help in planting a certain magical brain-transferring crystal (that’s about how well it’s explained in the play) onto Julius Woodknocker’s person, only of course things get messed up, and I won’t spoil the secret-surprise ending!
There are some charming performances in this show, mainly from Engstrom and Gray as the Draculas. They are both dressed gorgeously, and maybe it’s the European accents, but they have a certain sophistication and dignity about them that makes their performances stand out.
Also noteworthy is Michelle Backlund as the long-suffering Mrs. Woodknocker, and Bawden as her obnoxious husband. The Groucho lines take some real work to deliver properly, and while Bawden was still fumbling over some of them on his first night, he showed real promise in being able to make this very essential role quite funny.
Madeline Watkins is playing Mrs. McGonigal (the Woodknockers’ elderly traveling companion) for her 13th year, and her absurd costumes and Granny Clampett voice make her extremely enjoyable to watch.
On Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays, you can see “Shadowbrook Mansion,” written by Valley Center Playhouse co-owner Jody Renstrom. This play is more unevenly written than the first, but the performance is more energetic and ultimately more entertaining.
Like “Hotel,” “Shadowbrook” has several famous Halloween monsters gathered together in one place. This time it’s the home of the mysterious Shadow (David Belliston; double-cast with Nate Oldham), who has invited the Wolfman, Egor, the Mummy, the Dracula family (they’re divorced and have two kids in this play) and a couple of witches to spend Halloween weekend with him. Turns out the reason is that he’s going to finally overcome the curse that turned him into a shadow, and simultaneously drink one of the witches’ potions to become immortal. (This is at first an evil thing he’s doing, but later on it seems good, don’t ask me why.) He needs all the monsters there because the potion requires various things from them, which he takes without asking.
This play is also a musical, with eight pleasantly annoying songs involving nearly every cast member and perhaps five different chords. The lyrics are mostly embarrassing (“We followed directions to a `T’/Then we started disappearing — oh my, oh me!”), but I found myself grinning anyway just because everyone seemed to be having so much fun singing them.
Matt Clayton’s performance as the Wolfman is the best performance of either show. He does several subtle wolf-like things, even when he’s still a regular guy, and demonstrates a real flair for comedy. Also quite good, once again, are the Draculas — Brett Merritt and Deborah Tevis, this time. Their little spats are funny (Mrs. Dracula says to her son, “You look exactly like your father. Perhaps it’s just a phase”), and their two children complement them perfectly.
Nearly everyone in this cast is energetic and committed to their goofy characters, making the play an entertaining little comedy with several subplots.
To be honest, reviewing these shows made me feel like a connoisseur of fine foods be sent to do a restaurant review at Arby's. Here I am talking about quality of acting, and nuances in scripts, and directorial choices, when all of those things are irrelevant. It doesn't matter if the shows are good; all that matters is that people like them.
These shows demonstrate the dichotomy that is community theater. "Hotel Frankenstein" is rather well-written and has good comedy potential -- and yet it is also somewhat lame (especially the "secret surprise ending," which is a surprise to no one). "Shadowbrook Mansion" is written like a fifth-grade creative writing project and has songs that are howlingly, embarrassingly stupid -- and yet the play was twice as entertaining as "Hotel Frankenstein." It all comes down to enthusiasm and energy, and the "Shadowbrook" cast had more of those qualities than did the other one.
Both of these shows misspell Igor's name as "Egor." I don't know why this bothers me, but it does.