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Making Frankenstein Sing

by Ann Morrow on September 8, 2011

Jeffrey Jene as Victor Frankenstein

“I was taken in by the powerful music. I love the intensity of emotion that comes with the music; the signature song, ‘The Coming of the Dawn,’ is very beautiful.” Stage director Tim Orcutt is describing Frankenstein: A New Musical, which makes its regional premiere at RPI Playhouse this weekend. Yes, Frankenstein. But this production, which opened off-Broadway in 2007, is a far cry (make that scream?) from the horror-movie image of Frankenstein’s creature as a lumbering, barely sentient monster. Instead, he is a tragic figure hell-bent on wrecking revenge on the “father,” Victor Frankenstein, who rejects him. Adapted from by Gary P. Cohen, the musical is faithful to Mary Shelley’s “dark vision of what lies at the depths of the human soul.”

“It’s a thriller,” says Orcutt. “Not necessarily repulsive, but it’ll get your heart racing.”

Set in 1793, the technically heavy and cutting-edge production presents Shelley’s novel as a “memory play,” in which time unfolds in retrospective and changes in place occur simultaneously. “There’s a scene where Elizabeth [Victor’s fiancée] is writing a letter to Victor, and Victor is in Ingolstott on the other side of the stage,” describes Orcutt. “It’s surreal.” Three projectors provide fluid changes in backdrops.

“Because it’s associated with RPI, there’s no shortage of technical expertise,” Orcutt continues. “The schematics for the sets are very precise. The soundman is the same person who designed the theater’s sound system.” And that’s important, not just because of the requisite special effects, but also because the story is told almost entirely in song. “When you have a show that’s this intricately involved with music, says Orcutt, “the need for precision is even more stringent.”

And so was the need for a cast that can sing and act. A resident of Scotia, Orcutt has been acting and directing in community theater since 1989. This is, however his first time directing a musical. “I’m very impressed,” he says of his cast of 12 local thespians.

Ken Kasch, who has extensive stage experience in the Capital Region and New York City, is the Creature. “Ken is a terrific actor and he has a powerful voice,” says Orcutt. “And he’s passionate about the play; he’s been wanting to do it for a long time.” Jeffrey Jene plays Victor. Better known as a magician, Jene made his singing debut last season in Carousel at Schenectady Light Opera Company. “He’s a great singer, and a great actor,” says Orcutt. Though the director had worked with Tara Burnham previously (in Hay Fever at Albany Civic Theater), he didn’t know she could sing. “When Tara auditioned, I was blown away,” he says. “I knew immediately I had found my Elizabeth.”

In contrast to the minimalist sets, the costuming is period authentic to its era of Galvanism and scientific experimentation. “The costumes and wigs are all customized and made by hand,” say Orcutt. “You can see a lot of Victorian onstage, but this is late Georgian. It adds to the realism.”

But ultimately, it’s the music that makes the play. Orcutt describes “Hands of Time,” another signature song, as “a very driving, emotional song. It’s a quartet that’s so cleverly arranged you can hear what everyone is saying. There are recurring themes but it’s not like you’re hearing the same song two or three times, it’s subtler,” he continues. “It’s almost like a rock musical but more modern and less predictable.”

Frankenstein: The Musical will be performed Sept. 9, 10, 15, 16 and 17 at the RPI Playhouse (Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Troy). Show time is at 8 PM.