Dracula: Do the Undead Have to be This Lifeless?
Okay, let's just get this over with.
There is no doubt in my mind that Dracula, the new musical which opened tonight at the gorgeously atmospheric Belasco Theatre, is going to thrill and delight many, many theatregoers. It's a handsome production of classic tale performed by an attractive cast of beautifully singing actors. In fact, Dracula has only two major flaws: the book and the lyrics. And today's Broadway audience is more and more made up of people who would consider those failings to be of minor concern.
Drawing on Bram Stoker's 1897 masterwork novel (uncredited, by the way) of a centuries-old count who drinks the blood of the innocent to achieve eternal youth, the bare bones narrative written by Don Black and Christopher Hampton without a hint of any attempt to develop empathy for the characters, provides no emotional support to a story that can be packed with eroticism, adventure and social commentary.
In fact, if their awkward dialogue were played for camp, Dracula might actually be a hell of a fun show. But as it stands, the thrill of watching vampires fly is simply the thrill of watching a well-executed theatrical effect. (And even that starts looking like synchronized swimming after a while.) And although the three leads show various amounts of skin during the famous bloodsucking scenes, there is a cold and completely passionless feel throughout the evening. Sure, seeing a nude Kelli O'Hara or a bare-chested Tom Hewitt and Melissa Errico may stir a tingle or two, but it's not like the authors have anything to do with any eroticism that may have accidentally slipped in.
And then there's the lyrics, also by Black and Hampton. The best thing I can say about the lyrics is that they usually rhyme. There are no attempts at internal rhyming, alliteration, tricky word-play or dramatic twists that are part of the art of musical theatre lyric writing. Instead, we spend the evening listening to what seems like desperate attempts to come up with any word that will provide a rhyme at the end of a musical phrase. How else can you explain such odd pairings as "fresh blood on my pillow" with "peccadillo" or "lay low" and "halo"?
Which is all the more a shame because composer Frank Wildhorn seems to be trying a few new musical directions with this one. Fans of his scores for Jekyll & Hyde, The Scarlet Pimpernel and The Civil War shouldn't worry. It's not like he's turning into Gershwin or -- dare I say it -- the "S" word. His music still provides the kind of pop-infused dramatics that have made him a favorite among a loyal league of theatre-goers, but Dracula is a bit subdued musically, compared with his previous scores, with no big, belty power ballad climaxes. He makes an obvious choice by providing the kind of generic horror movie music we'd expect from such a project (although the play-out music reminded me more of the score of a Superman movie), but African rhythms are peppered throughout, perhaps in reference to Van Helsing's Johannesburg background. There's also a charming comic waltz for Ms. O'Hara and company (Well, it would have been comic if the lyric was funny.) and for those who were really hoping to hear at least one song in the familiar Wildhorn vein there's an "Into the Fire" clone late in Act II called "Deep in the Darkest Night."
But despite weak material, director Des McAnuff has mounted a succulently beautiful production that delights the eyes as much as the authors punish the ears. Some of the show's most beautiful moments come in the fluid coordination of Heidi Ettinger's set (a gorgeous assortment of pieces accentuated by seductive curves and stained glass) and Howell Binkley's lights with Wildhorn's music set to Doug Besterman's orchestrations. Every set change becomes an interesting ballet with music seeming composed to introduce each piece as it glides in and out on cue. Catherine Zuber's period costumes are highlighted by some smashing and smart Gibson Girl dresses.
The cast assembled features an outstanding collection of young Broadway performers who do as best as one can with this material. Tom Hewitt, in the title role, is treated more like a prop than a Broadway star, as he's lifted and pulled across the stage having to wear a blank expression except for the times when red syrup flows from his mouth. His rich, vibrant singing voice is undercut by heavy miking that denies him any kind of personal connection with the audience, Melissa Errico can create rainbows of warm hues with her lovely soprano when given material like Amour or Finian's Rainbow, but there's little of quality for her to work with here. Kelli O'Hara takes advantage of peppier moments she's given and Don Stephenson, barely on stage as Renfield, provides some juicy dark comedy with his performance.
Yup, Dracula has all the ingredients needed to become a big Broadway hit. Now if you'll excuse me, I'm going to pour myself a very large cognac and cry myself to sleep.