When it comes to musicals, big things often come in small packages.
Dallas-based director and choreographer Joel Ferrell is tasked with transforming Young Frankenstein, a Broadway smash hit from Mel Brooks and Thomas Meehan, into a musical comedy gem that fits into two small regional theaters. The Circle Theater in Fort Worth will present Young Frankenstein from June 18 to July 23, followed by the production at Theater Three in Dallas from October 13 to November 13.
Musicals are the childhood sweetheart of the former Associate Artistic Director of the Dallas Theater Center (2011-2019) and Artistic Director of Casa Manana Musicals in Fort Worth (1996-2001).
“I was the child that came out of the womb singing and dancing,” Ferrell said. “I was tossing and turning and playing each role like a little child.”
Ferrell has directed musicals at several North Texas theaters, including Theater Three’s 2021 summer production of music man organized in three different parks.
“I will always be driven by someone who says, ‘I don’t think you can do this. It’s like, ‘Ah ha, I was given a challenge.’ “Said Ferrell.
At its core, he’s a choreographer, approaching musicals with movement in mind.
“I think I danced before I walked,” Ferrell said. “Musicals are in constant motion and that’s how I see them. It’s really fine. It comes naturally,”
After completing a production in 2019 of Sweeney Todd at the Circle Theater, Ferrell began discussing another musical project with Fort Worth theater executive director Tim Long.
“Not all musicals are happy to be scaled down to a smaller size, so finding musicals where you can still fill them up and fill an audience’s joy, but scale them to the size of the circle, that takes a lot of thought and a lot of negotiation,” Ferrell said.
Although he has not seen the musical version of Young FrankensteinFerrell believed Mel Brooks’ vaudeville-like comedic structure held potential for a smaller production.
“Young Frankenstein the movie is one of my top five movies of all time. I think it’s comedic perfection,” Ferrell said.
The musical about Frederick Frankenstein reluctantly inheriting his infamous family’s estate in Transylvania and fulfilling his grandfather’s legacy of corpse-raising is a homage to the old black-and-white horror movies that fascinated Ferrell when he was a child.
“It’s not all like the movie, but they filled in all the things you wanted to achieve and then put icing on the cake,” Ferrell said.
Ferrell studied the script and the score, deciding to reduce the size of the cast to eight actors.
“There will be an extra layer of silliness because there are so few people performing it, but in a smaller theater space doing a gothic epic comedy will be fun if we can pull it off, so the trick was to kick off the show,” Ferrell said. “The cast had to have the improvisational and musical theater skills of a very good Saturday Night Live if they are also very good singers and dancers.
With such a small cast, each actor has important responsibilities and there are no small roles.
“In rehearsals, we laugh more than should be legally allowed. It’s also joyful that it’s such a small bunch of happy idiots that everyone has a great show,” Ferrell said. “It’s great teamwork.”
Moving the show to Theater Three in the fall is part of Ferrell’s personal mission to create art through a business model that benefits multiple organizations and expand opportunities for audiences to see specific productions. .
“I try to encourage theaters in the DFW area to share resources and share art because I think we forget that these two towns that are right next to each other, our populations are huge, that when the theaters from Dallas or Fort Worth produce a show, a tiny fraction of the audience can see it, and then we move on to the next thing,” Ferrell said.
Creating a show that works for Circle Theater and Theater Three is a challenge.
“No two theater spaces are the same,” Ferrell said. “You really have to be design-savvy about how you design the show.”
Ferrell and the creative teams at both theaters need to consider the physical differences between the spaces. The Circle Theater has spectators seated on three sides of the stage while the Norma Young Arena Stage at Theater Three is a round theater format. The assembly must be modular so that it can be disassembled and reassembled quickly. It also needs to be built to last longer than a typical run and withstand a move.
“People often think of theater as mystical and magical, but it’s really wood and metal and nails and screws and time and expertise,” Ferrell said.
The budget for every aspect of the production is tight. When Ferrell spoke with the prop designer about creating elements from Frankenstein’s Lab, budget reality inspired innovation.
“If you have a lot of money, no problem. You just had it made somewhere and sent it to you, but we don’t have those funds. So you’re talking about a combination of thrift stores, painting techniques, good old-fashioned stage magic, and very neat lighting,” Ferrell said.
Audiences in both theaters will be just feet away from the actors, close enough to see every facial expression and experience every moment of hilarity.
“We’re just going to let you immerse yourself in the key players in a very intimate way and for me, that’s the best way to experience this kind of goofy comedy,” Ferrell said.
Learn more: Circle Theater and Theater Three