The mad professor at the Ogunquit Playhouse is a recently revamped world premiere musical based on the 1963 Jerry Lewis film of the same title. A favorite comedy movie, The mad professor is the story of a Jekyll and Hyde transformation that takes place for a mild-mannered and confused college professor.
The production is entertaining, well-paced and entertaining thanks to a story and lyrics by Rupert Holmes (The Edwin Drood Mystery and Drapes) and flashy numbers by Marvin Hamlisch in this last musical before his death in 2012. (Known for A chorus linehe is one of only two people to have won a combination of a Tony, Oscar, Grammy, Emmy, and Pulitzer Prize.)
Julius Kelp (Dan De Luca), a college professor, is the ultimate nerd. Socially awkward, awkwardly dressed, and seeing the world through ill-fitting glasses, he is friendless and harassed by students, including the captain of the football team. Kelp is also goaded by the university’s president, Dr. Warfield (Jeff McCarthy), an arrogant fool dutifully followed by his secretary, Miss Lemon (Klea Blackhurst) who is not so subtly in love with Warfield.
Soon to be in middle school, Stella Purdy (Elena Ricardo) is sweet, perky, and sees the world through rose-colored glasses. Her hopes of teaching literature in middle school are soon dashed as she is relegated to lecturing for an odd array of unfamiliar courses to give male professors time to pursue college projects. After all, it’s pre-feminist in 1963 and Purdy is a low person on the scale.
When Kelp meets Purdy, there’s a bit of romance in the air, but not much comes out of it as his social shortcomings get in his way. Kelp needs a makeover and when a visit to the gym doesn’t do much to transform him, he takes matters into his own hands.
Back in his elaborately designed lab with rows of beakers and bubbly potions, he develops a formula that transforms him from professorial geek into a well-dressed, talkative persona known as Buddy Love. He is an idol combining the likes of Bobby Darrin, Fabian and Tony Curtis. Mission accomplished.
Love becomes a campus-wide celebrity idolized by everyone. Unbeknownst to them, the Neglected Kelp still lives behind the new facade. Purdy is captivated by Love’s charm but skeptical by her arrogance and overbearing ego. She struggles with her affections between love and the more simple and sincere kelp.
The problem is that the potion of change wears off at most unexpected times. As he hums a tune in the local nightclub hangout, his voice begins to revert to nerdy Kelp and his fluid dance moves turn into uncoordinated dance attempts. He must struggle to keep his disguise intact, connecting the worlds between Love and Kelp.
The show has a 1960s flair with stylized sets and designs from the era and an ensemble that has “groovy” moves in costumes ranging from simple collegiate to almost psychedelic.
De Luca is paramount to the role of playing the nerdy Kelp beautifully while making the move to Buddy Love a memorable one. His strong voice particularly shines in Buddy Love numbers and with the occasional tap, De Luca is a joy to watch.
Ricardo is the perfect love interest, showing his angst over life’s decisions and his affections for Kelp and Love. She is particularly committed in her two self-actualizing numbers “Dance to My Own Drummer” and “While I Still Have Time”. The chemistry, no pun intended, is spectacular with De Luca,
McCarthy and Blackhurst are hilarious in their over-the-top personas. They both have breakout numbers showing off their vocal talents. McCarthy portrays her stage career that could have been in “Take the Stage” while Blackhurst delivers a stunning female liberation number with “Step Out of Your Shell”, doing her own transformation with renewed confidence; no kelp formula needed.
The whole show is a mix of athletic stars and center stage beauties. The ensemble tunes and dancing are spectacular.
Matt Deitchman’s musical direction does justice to the 1960s genre with an orchestra that doesn’t dominate the singers.
The set moves very easily from college hallways to local bar hangout and Kelp’s chemistry lab thanks to scenic design by Wilson Chin and Riw Rakkulchon and lighting design by Cory Pattak. The overwhelming task of dressing up 1960s casual styles, sportswear and streetwear is expertly performed by costume designer Mara Blumenfeld.
I commend the Ogunquit Playhouse and its Artistic Director, Brad Kenney, for pushing the boundaries of summer theater in Maine. The summer season now extends through the end of October, followed by a Christmas show at Music Hall in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. And while I appreciate the old classics and the well-known musical theater folio, I’ve come to trust Kenney and his team as they explore new works and world premieres. The mad professor is a winner, and I can’t wait to see their next world premiere, Mr. Holland’s Opus.