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Golem-a-Go-Go

November 15, 2007 By:
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Playing with fire is the Monster (Shuler Hensley) and the blind hermit (Fred Applegate).
Is it really a schmear of cream cheese that Shuler Hensley is "Puttin' on the Ritz"?

Well, in a way. He is Broadway's extraordinary new eco-E.T. -- as the Monster in Broadway's "Young Frankenstein," he is green and Gorey, and great. And that begs the question, "What would happen if the Frankenstein Monster mated with the Green Witch of 'Wicked'?"

"Guess we'd give birth to Shrek," considers Hensley the Humorous. And since Shrek is Yiddish for ogre ... That Hensley Monster has a matzah-ball soupcon of Jewishness in that nuts -and-bolt noggin' of his head.

Sure, it's a no-brainer now that he's taken Broadway by the Monster mash in Mel Brooks' "Young Frankenstein," but it wasn't that long ago that he portrayed the go-to Golem of gavelts of Yiddish theater, Boris Thomashefsky, in concerts at Carnegie Hall and in San Francisco.

"It all stemmed from Michael Tilson-Thomas, and the insights he brought from his family," says Hensley of the famous conductor drawing on the roots of his even more famous grandfather Thomashefsky, the father of Yiddish theater in this country.

There is no grandfather clause to greatness and this, concedes the towering inferno of an actor, sparked a great role for Hensley.

But had he tried to translate "Puttin' on the Ritz" into Yiddish?

"The songs were treasures," says Hensley of the hit score, "and that would have been a great one to translate."

How does one translate Boris to Boris? Thomashefsky to Karloff? With a talent so huge, it doesn't need six-inch lifts to stand on for this body part of all theater parts. At 6 foot 3, Hensley hits the heavens before the heavens hit back in this remake of Brooks' classic 1974 film, in which genes are wilder this time around than even before.

Backstage stories backed up his own knowledge of Yiddishkeit, says Hensley of Brooks' tales from the old school that served as a laboratory of laughs in rehearsals.

This isn't the first tall order Hensley's taken on since first cast as Judge Terpin in a college production of "Sweeney Todd." The baseball-scholarship student hit home with the audiences in such subsequent professional jobs as Judd, earning a Tony with a fringe on top for being much more than "OK" in the Broadway production of "Oklahoma!" Chicks and ducks and geese scurried -- and audiences felt the frisson of fear -- as he portrayed Judd-with-jitters to go, one of the most frightening portrayals of the fearsome frontier outcast ever achieved.

Indeed, who would come out the winner if Judd and the Monster were thrown into a locked lab and had to battle to the death (or, in the Monster's case, the redeath?)

"The Monster might win, but it would be Judd who would start it," laughs Hensley.

Start up with Frankenstein's Monster, and there's no end to it; this is not the actor's initial acquaintance with the joyless green giant. Hensley also played him in "Van Helsing," a creature feature that starred Hugh Jackman, with whom Hensley shared the stage in the London production of "Oklahoma!"

The Atlanta native with transatlantic status -- Hensley also unmasked great reviews as the Phantom in a German production of "Phantom of the Opera" -- enjoys being part of a post-Mel Brooks' "Producers" production generating electricity -- zaps of which spark a great onstage set at the Hilton Theatre.

"I'd play third broom from the left if Mel Brooks were producing it," says Hensley, who, when kiddingly told that that may actually be the name of Brooks' next musical, retorted, "Then we'll sweep the season."

He lets out a laugh that sweeps the cobwebs from the clouds. This Monster has a monster sense of humor to go with an operatic oeuvre that sings well of his serious status worldwide.

As for being "a-live!," it's more than just a living; it's a calling. And when Brooks called, he was ready.

"I try to find the realness of each scene," states Hensley. "Especially if you're grotesque and built to be the Monster."

Dead man walking? After-life of the party? Hensley is hunk handsome without the green gook and gorky onstage grin, and he's built a stunning career. Not bad for a former ballet student of his mother's -- the late Iris Antley Hensley -- who thought his fete in life would be dance. That's some "Nutcracker" indeed!

"Somewhere up there, she's looking down on me onstage, and saying, 'Well, he's a monster again, but at least he gets the chance to dance.' "

A song-and-dance demon? Dismember of the wedding that is comedy, wit and laughs? What Frankenstein and Brooks have built is a man for all (sawed-off) parts.

But Hensley -- who also starred in Broadway's "Tarzan" -- swings with dead-on syncopation in the show stopper, "Puttin' on the Ritz," in which he proves he may be the Ruby Keeler of killed-off choreographed stars.

Now that's a frightening thought. But, then, he doesn't scare off everyone. Let him growl and grunt to his wife; she knows it's all an act. And his kids think it's cool that their sweet, even-tempered father is the foremost fearmonger on Broadway (not including the stagehands union and producers at strike at press time; but nothing can stop "YF": This show is unaffected by the stoppage.)

And, as for New Yorkers, what's a big green thing on the sidewalk they haven't seen already? Lug as a lugie?

"I was walking down the street in New York in costume" on his way to a Halloween appointment, "and half the crowd was pushing me out of the way to get to the cabs."

Call him a taxidermified character in creepy getup and he won't mind. But there have been the plethora of pleasing operatic parts he's latched onto that others would give an arm and a leg for.

That's laboratory -- not opera house -- lingo, he knows. But, then, isn't life one big laboratory?

Indeed, "Shuler" is German -- he's named after his maternal grandfather -- for student, scholar. And if there's anyone who gets a gold star for a study in fun in "Young Frankenstein," it's the guy with the untoppable top hat and cane -- and unseemly plastic surgery -- that nips and tucks at the funny bone.

So how does a Monster square such terrific singing and dancing talent with terrifying looks? By going back to Square One: Rittenhouse Square, where Hensley was a prized student at the prized Curtis Institute of Music, earning a master's.

That's where he learned during the '90s the nuts and bolts of beauty before the beast. "Curtis had the single most profound effect on me as a performer and singer," he says. "They had the best of the best of students and musicians and teachers there with a terrific opera faculty."

And while some students took their act on the road -- "I did get a chance to perform; the school gave me my first taste of professional performance" -- the road stopped short of Rittenhouse Square itself. Park his talent at the front door. "I didn't go out and do any yodeling in Rittenhouse Square," he chuckles.

He pauses. "I saved that for South Street."

With his career signs pointing north, the 40-year-old Southerner would be thrilled to be considered for the "YF" musical movie role, if there is one. Indeed, this production originally wasn't the last to be heard of the Monster; there were some scripted thoughts of his future that didn't make it to the final cut, "in which he goes into politics, and is elected mayor of the town and even starts a union for other monsters."

Hold it ... have we finally found Jimmy Hoffa, holed up as Hensley, in Transylvania? Is all the green and gook just a cover-up? Is Hensley's he-monster Hoffa as hoofer? Team player as Teamster?

"Well," says the star with the spry sense of humor, "it does feel like I'm wearing cement shoes."

Cement the status, Shuler. Your onstage co-star father is a real Star of David -- a good Jewish doctor named Frankenstein -- and you are his off-the-wall offspring, which makes the body by Frankenstein ... Jewish.

Puttin' on the ... schvitz: So, where do you find a mohel who could manipulate such a monster of a man? Hensley the hero isn't even circumspect about circumcision, a foreskin -- or would it be six-skin -- snip that would make this traveling tree trunk a member of the tribe.

"Well," he mulls the mohel call, "I am a method actor."

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