BWW Review: INNERchamber's Production of DRACULA A CHAMBER MUSICAL is Hauntingly Beautiful
A few weeks ago, Broadway World reported that an exciting in-concert production of DRACULA: A CHAMBER MUSICAL would be presented one night only at Knox Presbyterian Church in Stratford, Ontario. The concert took place last week in front of a packed church, and it certainly did not disappoint.
This thrilling production, put on by INNERchamber, featuring 7 actors and a 6 piece orchestra, allowed for the gorgeously haunting music by Marek Norman and lyrics by Richard Ouzounian to find new life 18 years after the musical was mounted on the Stratford Festival's Avon Theatre Stage.
Both Ouzounian and Norman were in attendance, and Norman was in fact the pianist and Music Director for the evening. With the focus being on the music, and the actors being on-book, this was, as was advertised, a concert version of the musical. That said, some very clever direction by Marti Maraden and some fine acting choices by the ensemble truly brought the story to life in a powerfully engaging way. The setting of Knox Church, on the night before Halloween allowed for an appropriately gothic feel for the production and the fact that the church was packed with eager audience members, only added to the already electric atmosphere. There were moments when members of the audience would lean forward in anticipation, perhaps knowing that a number that they remembered from a past production was coming up. It is not hyperbolic to say that the entire audience was completely enraptured from start to finish.
The story of Count Dracula is a familiar one-weaved into our everyday lives through movies and television--A character plastered on our cereal boxes and worn as a costume on Halloween...but this musical focuses on bringing to life the intimate and Victorian story that was captured using characters' diary entries in Bram Stoker's classic novel from 1897. Some changes obviously had to be made to adapt the story into this musical production, but the spirit of that original story was still there.
As Count Dracula, David Rogers commanded the stage. His powerful and exquisite singing voice floated through the the church. The character that Rogers created was not simply the antagonist of the story. He was portrayed as a complex character who lives in isolation, longs for his past, but embraces the darkness he has been forced to live in for centuries...And oh, he is also a bit of a romantic! Dracula's complex nature is beautifully illustrated in numbers such as Dreams of Darkness, The Blood is the Life, and Nothing Left but Time.
Another voice that rose above the rafters was that belonging to Mark Uhre as English Lawyer, Jonathan Harker. The skilled tenor opened the show with the number Journey to the Castle and later dazzled with Just One More Night and in various ensemble numbers. As Harker's fiancée and eventual wife, Mina, Ayrin Mackie sang beautifully and embodied both the innocence and strength of her character. Her reprise of Just One More Night with Dracula and Harker, as well as her duet of the I Will Shelter You reprise with Harker near the end of the show were particularly memorable, as was her solo number No Greater Force.
As Lucy Westenra, Mina's best friend, and the original object of Dracula's desire, Jennifer Rider-Shaw masterfully portrays the transformation from young, naïve, and romantic, to sickly and spellbound, and finally to a creature of the night. Again, this was a concert, not a full production, but that did not stop Rider-Shaw from fully emoting her character's increasingly dark desires. Her performance of Let the Night Begin-perhaps the most recognizable number from this piece, was beautifully haunting, as was the character's transformation throughout the number. It also must be said, that at the end of Act 1, when, in order to save her soul, Harker stakes Lucy through the heart-Rider-Shaw managed to muster the most perfect and spine-tingling scream imaginable. This show was one night only, and in the one shot that she had, she absolutely nailed that scream!
Lucy's (living) love interest is Dr. Seward, portrayed here by Cyrus Lane. Prior to speaking with Marek Norman ahead of this production, this writer had no idea that Mr. Lane had such a gorgeous baritone. Lane fleshes the character out into a slightly awkward, well-meaning doctor who is devastated by the events that lead to his love's demise. To try to save Lucy, he calls his esteemed colleague, Dr. Van Helsing, portrayed in this production by the always-fantastic Marcus Nance. The second Act opens with an epic face-off between Dracula and Van Helsing in the number Live To Walk Away. The performances were stunning and over a week later, I still have chills when thinking about it. Nance's voice is also on display in the number The Undead and in some exquisite ensemble numbers including the beautiful Oh, Precious Father along with the characters of Harker, Mina, Dr. Seward, and Lucy.
Last but not least, the role of Renfield, Dracula's servant, and a patient in the asylum run by Dr. Seward, was played by Sean Arbuckle. Arbuckle had a delightful twinkle in his eye as he performed The Spider and the Fly. Not only was his performance magical, but we as an audience were also blessed with some theatre magic when a fly made an appearance flying around the lights on stage. Astoundingly, the fly was present for this number only, and then was never seen again. I've decided to give Arbuckle credit for that as well! In the second Act, when Renfield sings to Mina about who he used to be and who he wants to be again, Arbuckle aptly portrays the tragedy that has befallen his character.
Along with these fine actors, came an equally extraordinary ensemble of musicians, led by Norman (on piano). On violin were INNERchamber Artistic Director, Andrew Chung and Julie Baumgartel; on viola was Judith Davenport; and on cello was Ben Bolt-Martin. Joining them on percussion was Graham Hargrove. The music and sound effects throughout the concert was sublime. Despite very limited rehearsal time with the singers and musicians all together, and despite the fact that the ensemble was off to the side and the singers likely did not have a direct eye line to Musical Director, Norman, the music and the voices melded so perfectly and beautifully that you would think this entire group had been practicing together for months. The show-stopping number at the end of the first half of the show is a prime example of how well everything came together. It was utterly phenomenal.
On the technical side of things, the feats of Sound Designer John Hazen and Lighting Designer Stephen Degenstein must not go without mention. The sound design effectively utilized the acoustics of the church, and balanced the voices and the instruments perfectly. The lighting in particular, combined with Maraden's direction really allowed for stellar performances. One moment in particular where the use of lighting elevated the production, came during If You Love Me Now, a duet between Dracula and Lucy. At the end of the song, Dracula bites Lucy for the first time. Blood red lights shine on the actors as they mimic this action, and then, at the end of the song when the musicians play a menacing chord, Lucy and Dracula simultaneously look up to the audience and then turn and walk away. The pale, white lighting on their faces at this moment, added to the element of horror to great effect.
It is evident that the level of dedication and commitment by everyone involved in this concert was extraordinary-especially considering that all that work was for one single performance. There is a sadness in knowing that everyone has now gone their separate ways and there are no current plans to mount this production again in the immediate future (that I know of), but there is also a beauty in that. Like the character of Dracula himself has done so many times, this production has returned to its crypt, awaiting its inevitable resurrection. But even with it gone, the way it makes us feel continues to live on and haunt us-in the most wonderful way!
Photo Credit: Irene Miller
Information about the current INNERchamber season can be found at www.innerchamber.ca