BWW Review: U of U Musical Theater Students Sink Teeth Into DRACULA, With Splendid Direction and Choreography

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BWW Review: U of U Musical Theater Students Sink Teeth Into DRACULA, With Splendid Direction and Choreography

"I have crossed oceans of time to find you."

Director-choreographer Denny Berry takes a stab (pun intended) to breath new life (sorry about that one) into a musical version of Bram Stoker's 1897 epistolary novel, the inspiration for countless adaptations and spin-offs for TV, film and stage over the decades.

With unrequited love as a strong topic to explore in a musical, DRACULA, THE MUSICAL is equal parts pop opera and midnight horror-movie screening, with blood and panache both evident. And there's a goofy cowboy.

Broadway's 2004 musical about the Transylvanian blood-sucker -- by Frank Wildhorn, Don Black and Christopher Hampton -- received scorching criticism: "The Bat Awakens, Stretches, Yawns" is one of the New York Times' more famous theater headlines and New York Magazine pronounced, "Frank Wildhorn's Dracula sucks."

Reworked in 2014 at the Seoul Arts Center, it was described as a brand-new show getting a world premiere, rather than just a revival of an existing musical, and starred the flaming red-haired K-pop group JYJ member Kim Jun-su. Gone are the trio of Dracula's "wives," replaced by a zombie ensemble of Dracula's "Children of the Night" that follow Dracula Mini-Me patterning. They dance impressively and work constantly to move Rachel Harned's multiple set pieces. Lighting design (Cole Adams) and sound design (Aaron Hoenig) are crackerjack, with Heather Rogers' conventional but lush costuming for main characters.

Set in Europe at the end of the Victorian Age, the tale begins at an eerie castle with the arrival of Jonathan Harker (Matthew Rudolph), an earnest London solicitor. Dracula (Chase Quinn), then aged and decrepit, sees a portrait of Mina Murray (Talia Heiss) -- Jonathan's fiancée -- and recognizes she is the reincarnation of Elizabeth, his love from 400 years ago.

Determined to win her love, Dracula drinks Jonathan's blood and regains his youth. That's an important, early plot point. Yet it had to be explained to me why Dracula initially sports a long white braid but then less blood-thirsty reappears in a shorter, white-streaked black wig. Longer fingernails becoming shorter should have been my clue.

At a musical about Dracula, you're not looking for a strong storyline. Yet a successfully written musical demands a strong book and equally strong score. Here the script is, well, in a word, scattered.

Mina's gal pal Lucy Westernra (Hayley Cassity) has three suitors -- one sweet, one sad, one snoring -- introduced in the startlingly comic number "How Do You Choose?" But she quickly chooses a husband, not Cowboy. You'd think the spurned men would withdraw, but with Van Helsing (Cameron Holzman) they form a posse of vampire hunters for the rest of the show.

Dracula should haunt your nightmares. Here he's a hoary mannequin. He's not scary, scandalous or sexy. The tasteful nudity of Kelli O'Hara making her Broadway debut to demonstrate how the Count has taken away sexual innocence was a memorable aspect of the original stage. There's another scene ripe for an infusion of sexuality that is demure.

The songs are serviceable but the score is overstuffed with power ballads that don't particularly impress. There's no standout "This Is the Moment" (Wildhorn's "Jekyll and Hyde") or "That's What You Call a Dream" (his "Bonnie and Clyde"). There is "Deep in the Darkest Night," a strong companion to, if not rewrite of, "Into the Fire" ("Scarlet Pimpernel").

And consider these lyrics: "I always know what he's thinking / I always know when he's drinking" and "We don't have to go down that road / We don't have to shoulder that great load."

Berry recognizes the distinct luxury she has to stage minor works by major composers (Lloyd Weber's "Beautiful Game," Kander and Ebb's "Steel Pier"), delighting adventerous theatergoers. She wants to enrich her audience beyond typical done-to-death university productions, like BYU's "Into the Woods" and UVU's "Urinetown." The stagecraft here is well-executed, and choreography and stage movement are stunning. As with other shows, this is a tremendous opportunity for the actors to create wholly unknown characters.

Each cast member is a trouper. Offering strong performances are Rudolph as Harker. And the women sparkle. Cassity creates a lovely doomed damsel Lucy, and there's the ravishing Heiss as Mina, commanding the stage from her first entrance. She shows a real struggle between what she ought to do and the mind-controlling compulsion from Dracula.

But the painfully serious DRACULA book is just boring, merely a filler between musical moments. If only it could be enjoyed à la "Rocky Horror Show" -- with audience shout-outs ("Blood. We want blood!" as a suggestion; or each time Cowboy pulls out his revolver and Bowie knife to shine with a handkerchief: "Polish it!") and audience props, like throwing rice during the wedding scene and water pistols with each crash of lightening!

Audience interactions would make DRACULA, in the Transylvanian dialect of Count Drraaakula, more truly spektaaakula.

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From This Author Blair Howell