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“Frankenstein” at the San Francisco Ballet

“Frankenstein” at the San Francisco Ballet

Carol Benet

This is the 200 year anniversary of Mary Shelly’s masterpiece “Frankenstein” and the San Francisco Ballet presents its own version with a full-length production of the famous novel. Last year in its San Francisco premiere it was a sold-out affair and so was this year.  The audience, many of them young and hip, went wild for the show.

A co-production with The Royal Ballet that premiered in London in 2016 was reprised to great success.  The two hour  and 20 minute work with two intermissions presents theatricality and superb dance by the world famous San Francisco Ballet.

With a rotating cast of the principal artists, the story is condensed and certain elements from the novel are high-lighted  The main interest surrounds the monster, a creation of the medical student Victor Frankenstein, danced by principal dancers Joseph Walsh to his fiancée Elizabeth (Frances Chung) on opening night

The first act takes place in the family manor in Geneva dating 1788 before Victor’s departure to study medicine.  The engagement to Elizabeth is made, Victor’s mother dies (on stage) in giving birth to his baby brother William and the scene is set for more gruesome episodes to follow.  But before he leaves his father gives him a red notebook in which he is to record his scientific experiments. The date of the action, during the 18th century coincides with the height of the Enlightenment when great faith was placed on new discoveries of all kinds.

The next scenes take the young Frankenstein to Ingolstadt University’s Anatomy Theatre, then to the local tavern  where the students hang out with the “ladies” and back to work where Frankenstein creates the famous monster whose effect is enhanced by the fantastical machine that hovers above with all its electrical charges and sound effects and pyrotechnics.  John Macfarlane’s Scenic and Costume design, David Finn’s Lighting and Finn Ross’s Projections make this show, alive on the stage before us, much better than anything the cinema can create even in 3-D, technicolor and in the fancy new theaters that offer reclining seats like those in first-class  airplane flights.  Live on the stage, this is the real thing and it is scary.

Of course Liam Scarlett’s choreography and the important American composer Lowell Liebermann’s music fashion a spellbinding ballet danced by the principals of the Ballet with the help of the soloists and Corps de ballet, all excellent performers.  In this ballet  Joseph Walsh and Vitor Luiz have to be both dancers and emotive actors, skills that they perform splendidly.

As the story in the next two acts progresses,  the monster is created and escapes, Dr. Frankenstein realizes his grave error and returns home in a fevered state.  The monster commits crimes and the red notebook takes on its own role as proof of a scientific experiment gone wrong.

“Frankenstein” at the San Francisco Ballet will surely enter its repertoire along with other beloved full-length ballets “Swan Lake”, “The Nutcracker” and “Sleeping Beauty”.   In the two years of its performances here it has been a sold-out affair.  Watch for it the next time around.

Further reading on the subject is the fine article in the February 12 and  19, 2018 “New Yorker” by Jill Lepore, “Life and Letters:  It’s Still Alive – Two hundred years of “Frankenstein.”

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