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Juggling roles of father, Igor isn't a monster task

Christopher Fitzgerald of 'Young Frankenstein' finds that good things -- big break, first child -- come in numbers.

February 15, 2008|Mark Kennedy | Associated Press

NEW YORK -- When Christopher Fitzgerald learned he'd be in one of Broadway's biggest shows, he was already deep in another role. He was trying to act from inside an enormous, marshmallowy Cabbage Patch costume, filming one of those offbeat Geico auto insurance commercials.

He was portraying a grown-up version of the children's doll, one whose sad life takes an upward turn after he saves a bunch of money on car insurance. But Fitzgerald wasn't visible in the costume and he had no dialogue.

During a break in filming, his career also took an upward turn.

"I'm sitting there, in my Cabbage Patch suit, my head next to me. I'm in a bathroom and my phone rings. I answer it. It's my agent. 'You've got an offer,' he says. 'For what?' I ask. 'Igor in "Young Frankenstein." ' "

Fitzgerald didn't have to think too hard about it. "I put that head on and I was like, 'Let's finish! I'm gonna give you some good Cabbage Patch!' " he says, cracking up.

Fitzgerald would soon be stepping into the formidable shoes of bug-eyed comedian Marty Feldman, who originated the Igor role in the 1974 film opposite Gene Wilder as Dr. Frankenstein.

A look at Fitzgerald's Geico commercial reveals why producer-creator Mel Brooks and his team were smitten: A broad sense of humor, a vaudevillian's timing and an embrace of the absurd.

"He is extremely gifted. He has what you can't teach," says Susan Stroman, the Tony-winning director and choreographer behind both "The Producers" and Brooks' latest show. "He has a gift for comedy, for the stage."

Fitzgerald -- who joined cast mates Megan Mullally, Sutton Foster, Shuler Hensley and Andrea Martin -- plays Dr. Frankenstein's endearing servant, a song-and-dance man who juggles human brains poorly and whose hump is hard to pin down.

"This calls upon every aspect of what I've been doing since I was a little tyke," Fitzgerald says. "It both flips me out and it seems to make some sort of weird cosmic sense."

It's Fitzgerald's third stint on Broadway. The 35-year-old actor from Maine originated the role of Boq in "Wicked" and was in "Amour" in 2002. Besides off-Broadway credits, he's also worked with Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre Company, the Huntington Theatre in Boston and spent 10 seasons with the Williamstown Theatre Festival in Massachusetts. He was on the TV show "Twins" and his film credits include "Personal Velocity," "Boiler Room," "Dedication," and "Revolutionary Road."

Fitzgerald clearly loves his new role. His dressing room displays several Igor action figures, a framed Playbill from the show and a photo of him arm-in-arm with Brooks. To warn cast mates that he's napping, he tapes a white paper plate to the door with the handwritten message "Igor is Sleeping."

Fitzgerald says "Young Frankenstein" was one of his favorite films growing up and he tried to filch as much as he could from Feldman that would translate to the stage.

"The main thing I tried to steal was that mischievous spirit," says Fitzgerald, who originally auditioned for the Dr. Frankenstein part while Roger Bart was cast as Igor.

That audition was part of a hectic day. Fitzgerald's wife, actress Jessica Stone, was pregnant with their first baby. She also was in a hospital, hooked up to an IV after suffering a painful kidney stone. To make matters worse, a blizzard descended on the city.

"So I'm in the hospital -- I'm soothing her and rubbing her head -- and also trying to sing softly these songs that I have to perform in front of Mel Brooks," he says.

Things worked out.

"My wife passed the stone, the snow melted, and I got a phone call saying that they were interested but that I wasn't necessarily right for Dr. Frankenstein."

Producers invited him back, this time to audition for Igor after it was decided that Bart should switch roles.

There suddenly was a new complication -- a happy one: His wife's due date turned out to be the first day of rehearsal.

"It's like utter bounty: Great part in this great new show with such great people. A baby on the way. All wonderful things, but wouldn't it be cool if you could stagger it?" he says. "Luckily, Charlie was late, so I didn't have to miss the table read."

Right after Charlie made his grand entrance at the end of June in New York, the young family moved to Seattle for seven weeks while "Young Frankenstein" tuned up before hitting Broadway.

In retrospect, Fitzgerald says switching roles with Bart made sense: "The great thing about it is Roger and I work so well together that it did work out. Ultimately, for us to find each other and be able to work off each other has been really fantastic."

A musical of its own could be written about the romance between Fitzgerald and his wife. They met in early 1999 when both were singing tunes from the Rodgers and Hart musical "Babes in Arms."

"We started certainly flirting and things were kind of brewing, but it all kind of culminated with us holding hands, singing 'My Funny Valentine,' on Valentine's Day with this gorgeous orchestra behind us. It was just too much."

Their first date was closing night.

Fitzgerald says it's challenging to have two actors in the same household, but they also share a special connection that many couples can only dream about.

"You know the sacrifices that you need to make, you can understand something like the opening night of 'Young Frankenstein' -- there's so much packed into that. There's so much emotional insanity. You're panicked, you're excited. And there's this person who completely gets it, who's been there."

Fitzgerald says his life is now full to capacity. At night he performs in front of 2,000 people and then goes home to an audience of one: his son. Fitzgerald says he loves their quiet, predawn time together, listening as his son babbles.

What's next for Fitzgerald? Another Mel Brooks project perhaps?

He wishes.

"Spaceballs: The Musical," he says. "I want to play Yogurt."

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