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Dracula, the Musical (08/19/2004 - 01/02/2005)


 

New York Daily News: "Dracula: Fangs but no fangs"

If there's any reason for the umpteenth version of Bram Stoker's "Dracula," it might be that someone had figured out a new way to make it scary.

Unfortunately, there was only one moment in the Frank Wildhorn musical that opened last night at the Belasco when I experienced true terror: In the middle of the second act, I was gripped by a numbing fear that the show would never end.

This retelling flails about aimlessly. Even if it had found a vein to tap, this sucker has no fangs.

The story, after all, has everything - suspense, lust, blood, old castles, Satanism, coffins constantly popping their lids, blood.

For an epic old tale, the 1897 novel is oddly modern in its anti-Christian undercurrents.

In Stoker's world you gain eternal life not by drinking the symbolic blood of the Eucharist, but by sucking people's actual blood. That's pretty subversive for something published in the 60th year of Queen Victoria's reign.

But no one involved in the current production has given the material even and a modicum of original thought - not Wildhorn, not lyricist Don Black, not script writer Christopher Hampton.

Black, the lyricist for Andrew Lloyd Webber's "Sunset Boulevard," sometimes comes up with a mildly amusing rhyme, like "Thames" and "Requiems." But most of his work is on the lackluster level of, "The ground moved as we kissed ... I wish I could stay in the mist!" Deadly!

Wildhorn's music is similarly earthbound. He wrote a few soaring numbers in his best work, "Jekyll and Hyde," but here his desire to write simple tunes - which I have nothing against - results in music that is melodically insipid and rhythmically inert.

It has no pulse.

Most disappointing is the book by Hampton, one of the most intelligent of contemporary English playwrights. He seems to have seen his task as merely providing filler between the musical numbers, since the plot has no logic of its own.

One of the key elements in the story of Dracula is Mina's struggle to resist the vampire. Here, she does everything she can to assist him, discarding the braids of garlic and the crucifixes that are supposed to ward him off - making his job so easy it can't really be called seduction.

Indeed, the entire show lacks tension. It doesn't even have enough self-aware humor to be considered campy. It makes the mindless 2002 "Dance of the Vampires" seem positively witty.

The only thing of passing interest is the constant flying of Dracula and his three ladies of the evening.

In 1977, a nonmusical version of "Dracula" became a sensation because Frank Langella made the character erotic. Tom Hewitt, who was sexy and outrageous a few years ago in "The Rocky Horror Show," never rises beyond stolid as the voracious Transylvanian.

Unlike his fellow vampires, who fly gracefully around the stage, Hewitt's flying is rectilinear - either up and down or horizontally across. Which is another way of saying square - like the rest of the performance.

Nor is there any chemistry between him and the usually luscious Melissa Errico, who plays Mina. She sings beautifully but the music gives her little to work with. In the second act, she bares her nipples, a gratuitous bit of sensationalism.

Kelli O'Hara, as an earlier Dracula victim, bares considerably more but it, too, seems desperate.

Don Stephenson has some compelling moments as Renfield the fly eater, but the character here has no real connection to the rest of the story. Darren Ritchie has an eloquent solo as Mina's fiance.

Heidi Ettinger, whose sets have often been the high point of productions, has here created backdrops that look merely chintzy, perhaps because so much room had to be allowed for flying. Catherine Zuber's costumes are fairly routine.

It is hard to imagine the usually canny Des McAnuff directed this anemic production. "Dracula" can be a lot of things, but it should never be bloodless.


New York Daily News
08/20/2004

New York Post: "It Sucks"

A singing vampire is back on Broadway – and his victims include the audiences of "Dracula, the Musical.”

After the debacle that was "Dance of the Vampires," you'd think producers would steer clear of bloodsuckers. But that hasn't stopped them from investing millions in “Dracula, the Musical," with music by Frank Wildhorn.

As he did in "Jekyll & Hyde" and "The Scarlet Pimpernel," Wildhorn plunders great works of pulp fiction in the public domain like some sort of literary grave robber.

Played in deadly serious fashion, "Dracula" is dreadfully bad, but falls short of the awfulness that would lift it to the level of fun camp. As with Wildhorn's previous efforts, it features a bland, wall-to-wall musical score, presented in blaring, synthesizer-heavy orchestrations.

The show sinks a lot of talent, including co-book and lyric writers Don Black ("Sunset Boulevard") and Christopher Hampton ("Les Liasions Dangereuses"), director Des McAnuff ("The Who's Tommy"), and set designer Heidi Ettinger ("Big River").

The charismatic Tom Hewitt, so wonderful in "The Rocky Horror Show," is uncharacteristically colorless as the Count, while the lovely Melissa Errico, who bares her breasts evenings as Mina (sorry, kids - no skin at the matinees), endures a lot more than a few bites.

The show remains basically faithful to the familiar story, although it's rendered in a series of short, frenetic scenes more suited to the cinema than the stage. To compensate for the lack of true suspense, the proceedings are filled with lots of special effects.

A trio of female vampires spends more time flying in the air than Peter Pan, while Hewitt's feet rarely touch the stage. Whether gliding around on a movable platform like a character in a Spike Lee movie, or having his stunt double conveniently fly just offstage so he can appear triumphantly a moment later, Hewitt's often reduced to a movable prop.

The book, such as it is, rarely rises above the level of cliche, except for such utterances as: "I ain't been on tenterhooks like this since that night we were waiting for the tiger to come for that tethered goat down in Sumatra!"

Wildhorn's score remains at his usual level of bombastic mediocrity, with the best songs allotted to Errico, who performs them beautifully. Even while she's singing, though, one imagines the ice-skating routines that will eventually be performed to them.

This may be the first version of Dracula in which he's killed not so much by a stake to the heart as by an insipid ballad.

The rest of the cast tries their hardest, with earnest work by Don Stephenson as the hapless Renfield and Kelli O’Hara (also briefly nude) as the victimized Lucy. Stephen McKinley Henderson, as the vampire hunter Van Helsing, manages to lend the proceedings some much needed gravitas.

Despite its reported $7.5 million price tag, the show doesn't particularly impress on a technical level. The sets consist of little more than fragments, props and projections, and the lighting's so dim that the production is best viewed through night-vision goggles.

Although Wildhorn's fans will flock to the production, one suspects the critics will do to "Dracula, the Musical" what garlic, crucifixes and wooden stakes couldn't.


New York Post
08/20/2004

New York Times: "The Bat Awakens, Stretches, Yawns"

And here it is, looming like a giant stuffed bat on a stick, the easiest target on Broadway. ''Dracula, the Musical,'' which sets the familiar tale of old snaggletooth to the familiar music of Frank Wildhorn, creaked open last night at the Belasco Theater with all the animation, suspense and sex appeal of a Victorian waxworks in a seaside amusement park.

Expectations were exceedingly low for this latest offering from the unstoppable Mr. Wildhorn -- the composer of the expensively dressed clunkers ''Jekyll and Hyde,'' ''The Scarlet Pimpernel'' and ''The Civil War'' -- and expectations have not been disappointed. So go ahead. Take your shots. Say something, if you must, about toothlessness or bloodlessness or the kindness of hammering stakes into the hearts of undead shows. Think of every appropriate variation you can involving the verbs to bite and to suck.

O.K., now that that's out of your system, perhaps you'll concede that it just isn't much fun to trash something that's so eminently, obviously trashable. ''Dracula, the Musical,'' which features a book and lyrics by Don Black and Christopher Hampton and is directed by Des McAnuff (''The Who's Tommy''), isn't simply bad, which is an aesthetic state of being that is kind of fun if you're in the right mood. (Gee, remember the ripely terrible ''Dance of the Vampires''?) It is bad and boring.

But because this is a presidential election season, there is already far too much negativity in the American air. Why not set an example for the Republican politicians who will be convening here at the end of the month? Take the high road: put down that bucket of tomatoes, snap on the rose-colored glasses and start enumerating the good things in ''Dracula, the Musical.''

1) The show is perfectly safe for people with heart conditions. (Those with respiratory problems should be aware that ''Dracula'' does exhale the usual tired quota of stage smoke.) Though the production features the inevitable shooting of guns, hammering of stakes and biting of necks, it is guaranteed never, ever to raise anyone's pulse, let alone induce screams and shivers. Though Tom Hewitt, in the title role, and several toothsome vampirettes can be seen moving through the air from time to time, the story never swoops or flies. It plods, plot point by plot point, over the terrain first landscaped by Bram Stoker in his novel and later covered by a multitude of films of varying quality.

2) You don't have to give it your full attention. (Convention speakers, take note: ''Dracula'' provides the perfect refuge for orators looking for somewhere to ponder quietly the details of their presentations.) If you already know the story of ''Dracula'' as put forth by Stoker and Hollywood, you will find nothing to surprise you here. If you don't know the story, you will find it impossible to follow. The show assumes the audience's full acquaintance with the source material and delivers much of its crucial exposition through sung lyrics that are not always intelligible. Do not -- repeat, do not -- fall into the trap of trying to justify the logic of the would-be vampire killers' methods of extermination, the consideration of which consumes a lot of stage time. That way madness lies.

3) There is no danger of gooey, irresistible melodies sticking to your memory. Though the songs have promisingly top 40-ish titles like ''Forever Young'' and ''Life After Life,'' they are unlikely to be recorded by Rod Stewart or Cher. Mr. Wildhorn may be famous for creating rafter-rattling soft rock anthems that are heard at sporting events and beauty pageants (e.g., ''This Is the Moment'' from ''Jekyll and Hyde''). But for ''Dracula,'' he has created a score that is mostly rambling, monotonous pop recitative. (It is performed by a six-piece orchestra that is an advertisement for the ear-drowning capabilities of synthesizers.) Only one number -- which doesn't make much sense in terms of the story (but no, don't think about that) -- feels like a candidate for a Streisand album. It is called ''The Heart Is Slow to Learn,'' and it is sung in lovely voice by the ever-lovely Melissa Errico, who really deserves better.

4) Hey, at least the show provides jobs for talented performers like Mr. Hewitt, Ms. Errico (who plays Dracula's English rose of a love object), Kelli O'Hara (as another rose, the one who is plucked) and Stephen McKinley Henderson (as Dracula's nemesis, Abraham Van Helsing). Of course, it must be tiring to deliver all those earnest lines so earnestly. (This production chooses not to take the now traditional camp route.) On the other hand, though the show credits include a choreographer (Mindy Cooper), no one is asked to move very much. Mostly, people just stand around with fixed, empty stares in frozen, arched-necked stances. Even when he's flying, Dracula's posture is as unbendingly straight-backed as that of a butler's butler. Ms. Errico and Ms. O'Hara, for the record, do indeed expose parts of their bodies that Victorian ladies always kept under wraps, but only very briefly (and needlessly). The producers' earlier plans to present special G-rated nudity-free matinees have been scratched.

5) ''Dracula'' is a boon to the fabric industry. The show, with its extensive wardrobe of full trains and capes, probably uses more cloth per character than any other musical on Broadway. Catherine Zuber has whipped up a host of handsome, stately late-Victorian ensembles, as well as Victoria's Secret-style lingerie for the lusty vampirettes. The show's set designer, Heidi Ettinger, goes for a more eclectic approach, suggesting Art Nouveau (Tiffany-style stained glass and morbidly sentimental churchyard statuary) channeled through the head-trippy sensibility of the Hammer studio horror films of the 1960's. Ms. Ettinger also appears to have carefully watched Francis Ford Coppola's go-for-broke film from 1992, ''Bram Stoker's Dracula.''

6) Because none of the characters seem remotely real or even comprehensible, you don't have to worry about feeling bad when they are killed off. There is, however, one person onstage with whom you may identify. That's Arthur Holmwood (Chris Hoch), the husband of the doomed, sweet Lucy (Ms. O'Hara). Arthur's most pronounced personality trait, an early song explains, is being boring.

He is first seen dozing happily in an armchair. There is, after all, nothing going on around him that would keep him awake.


New York Times
08/20/2004

Newsday: "Dracula: The Musical"

How do you like your undead? Scary? Romantic? Sexy? Philosophical? Satirical? Just dumb fun? If the answer is "none of the above," well, does Broadway have a big nothing for you. "Dracula: The Musical," which opens Thursday, August 19 at the Belasco Theatre, is that rare twist on Bram Stoker's vampire classic. This one has no discernible concept at all. Oh, there is a lot of flying -- up and down and sideways, by the ravenous old demon himself, but also by the three succubi who accompany him to London from Transylvania in pursuit of the fresh blood of youth. Also, people and props occasionally zip up to the rafters or disappear down trap doors, and furniture often glides in from the wings.

Indeed, if emotions also could have been moved by Flying by Foy, there might be an explanation for the tedious show, which has been in the works since Des McAnuff’s production three years ago at the adventurous La Jolla Playhouse in Southern California.

The story behind the story is that the music was written by Frank Wildhorn, the easy-listening pop composer whose "Jekyll & Hyde" was a national cult phenomenon and whose "Scarlet Pimpernel" went  through several incarnations on Broadway before calling it a night. For the most part, Wildhorn writes creamy, accessible, scream-it-to-the-rafters anthems for potboilers that unapologetically buck the trend  toward -- and the most critical preference for -- "Dracula, The Musical" is organically constructed musical theater.

This time, however, Wildhorn -- basically an outsider -- has arrived with collaborators who reside higher up the Broadway food chain. With them came the hope that Wildhorn's populist vigor would get a hip infusion from McAnuff, the Tony Award-winning director of "The Who's Tommy." Perhaps, with book and lyrics by Christopher Hampton ("Les Liaisons Dangereuses") and Don Black ("Sunset Boulevard"), the work might be grounded in a more secure tradition.

Then there's the cast, especially Tom Hewitt (the terrific Frank-N-Furter in the 2000 revival of "The Rocky Horror Show") as Dracula and the exquisitely self-challenging Melissa Errico as Mina, the Victorian beauty who just could be the vampire's forever love.

Instead of pushing Wildhorn's gifts into more than diverting schlock, alas, the creative team appears to have rolled the cheese ball with him.

For all the potential, "Dracula" betrays our most basic expectations for vampire seduction. The show isn't even good junk. Hewitt plays Dracula with all the blood-lust appeal of a park statue, even when he  transforms into what appears to be a giant papier-mache bat. Errico -- who has been known to be cold, but never before dull -- seems about as fascinated with the proceedings as we are. She looks terrific, with her period cameo face, but too few of the songs use the glittery top of her voice. She is too tasteful to do the pop belting and these songs insist on it.

There is so little chemistry between this vampire and his women that someone up there decided a little nudity couldn't hurt. So Lucy (the lyric, plucky Kelli O'Hara) has to flash her backside before Dracula folds over her and Mina conscientiously unlaces her bodice for her close-up. Naturally, the creators will insist this is artistically essential -- except for family audiences on Wednesday and Saturday matinees.

For all the busy scenery, this may well be the first visual gibberish ever designed by Heidi Ettinger. Catherine Zuber's late-Victorian costumes make the characters look more delectable than their behavior deserves. Howell Binkley's lights occasionally provide the lurid colors the performers lack. We know this is meant to be a dark show because we can't see what's going on.

Don Stephenson, as Renfield the insect eater and vampire slave, appears to be the only one having fun up there. We're grateful. As for the music, there are the expected electronic 'scary' organ echoes-- think a poor-fan's "Phantom of the Opera." Wildhorn has written some beautiful choral harmonies. He is not helped, however, by such lyrics as "I always know what he's thinking/I always know when he's drinking," or “We don't have to go down that road/We don't have to shoulder that great load." At the climax, such as it is, Dracula and Mina sing their conviction that "There's always a tomorrow/there's always one more night." Not on Broadway, not always.


Newsday
08/19/2004

USA Today: "This 'Dracula' in need of a transfusion"

The latest installment in that long-running Broadway saga, When Bad Shows Happen to Good Performers, has arrived. And this time, the cast of characters is particularly rich.

It's tough to decide which of the tragic heroes and heroines in Dracula ( * ½ out of four) merits the most sympathy. Might it be dashing leading man Tom Hewitt? Or Melissa Errico, whose delicate beauty and earthy soprano have allowed her to remain one of musical theater's most soulful ingénues for more than a decade? Or perhaps it's veteran character actor Stephen McKinley Henderson, whose indelible work has enhanced the plays of August Wilson and other great writers?

One hopes that these troupers are at least being well compensated for their participation in Frank Wildhorn's latest overstuffed turkey, which opened Thursday at the Belasco Theatre.

It's hardly surprising that Wildhorn should have set his sights on the bloodsucking Transylvanian. Like Andrew Lloyd Webber, the vampire who spiritually sired Wildhorn and a whole brood of bombastic, banal pop-opera poseurs, the composer of Jekyll & Hyde and The Scarlet Pimpernel has shown a fondness for stories involving virtuous but malleable young women who fall for menacing strangers. Watching Errico's raven-haired Mina Murray offer her alabaster skin to Hewitt's Dracula, it's hard not to be reminded of Lloyd Webber's ex-wife, Sarah Brightman, being ogled by Michael Crawford in The Phantom of the Opera.

But few of the syrupy tunes that Wildhorn has concocted here are likely to stick in your brain as stubbornly as Phantom's thicker sap did. Dracula is further saddled with dunderheaded lyrics and a witless book, both contributed by Don Black and Christopher Hampton, whose idea of comic relief is having an anxious Southerner declare, "I ain't been on tenterhooks like this since that night we were waiting for the tiger to come for that tethered goat down in Sumatra."

Other characters are British, though some of the American actors playing them speak with such erratic accents you might wonder whether they have multiple personality disorders. Hewitt sounds authentically exotic or he handles his cartoonish dialogue like a good sport. Errico looks and sounds lovely, as does Kelli O'Hara, playing another doomed damsel.

I can't imagine how they all got sucked into this mess, but I hope they're rescued from the walking, singing death that is Dracula as soon as possible.


USA Today
08/19/2004

Variety: "Dracula"

A crippling case of anemia is the last thing you'd expect from a musical about literature's most celebrated vampire. But so it is with Broadway's bloodless "Dracula," which frantically rattles the old bones of Bram Stoker's novel without generating a moment of suspense, horror, romance or even vague interest.

With the aimlessly churning pop music of Frank Wildhorn underscoring Don Black's typically banal lyrics and lumbering book, the musical plods doggedly through the creaky tale of ancient evil despoiling Victorian innocence.

As if to compensate for the lethargy of the story's treatment, director Des McAnuff and set designer Heidi Ettinger fill the stage with oodles of whiz-bang mechanical effects -- a trio of airborne, scantily clad female vampires, glass coffins that drip blood (well, Hawaiian Punch, anyway), trap doors and big, spooky statuary. Ol' Count D. is whisked aloft so regularly, Tom Hewitt should be collecting frequent flyer miles.

McAnuff clearly is working from the conviction that if the stage were to be free of moving parts for even a moment, the audience would instantaneously lapse into a collective slumber. He happens to be right. But the director, best known for his snazzy retread of "The Who's Tommy," here presents the pointless workings of a pinball machine without a pinball. By the time a few bodices finally begin ripping, in desperation, stupor has long since set in.

"Dracula" is, strange to say, Broadway's second trip to Transylvania in recent years. Two seasons back, "The Phantom of the Opera" star Michael Crawford slapped on the fangs in "Dance of the Vampires," which boasted its own power-pop score by Jim Steinman. Staggeringly silly as it was, that musical at least earned some affection for its exuberant vulgarity and shrugging awareness of its own absurdity. It generated a few healthy titters, even a guffaw or two.

It's hard to muster the energy for even a sidelong snicker at "Dracula," which soberly eschews any temptations to campy indulgence and insists, in vain, on the dramatic viability of its hoariest cliches. The model here is clearly Andrew Lloyd Webber's "Phantom," with the demonic, entirely nasty Dracula of Stoker's novel given the usual makeover, transforming him into a blood-feasting king of the undead who's kinda hot, too. Misunderstood, maybe. And sensitive? For sure.

Even as this traditional departure saps a measure of urgency from the good-vs.-evil story, Black's book sticks with gummy insistence to the complicated workings of Stoker's novel. Early scenes in Romania find earnest young lawyer Jonathan Harker (Darren Ritchie) exchanging nervous pleasantries with his mysterious client. Hewitt, as the count, is initially got up like Gary Oldman in the 1992 Francis Ford Coppola movie, in wizened makeup, ornate locks and ruffled brocade (Catherine Zuber's lush costumes are at least pleasing).

When Harker's host gets a gander at a photo of Harker's comely young fiancee, Mina (Melissa Errico), he hightails it to England, shedding a century of wrinkles along the way, Botox being superfluous when your diet is fresh blood.

In Blighty, Dracula warms up with an amuse-bouche in the form of Kelli O'Hara's Lucy Westenra. This milky young beauty sings merrily of her three suitors: a cartoonish Yankee, Quincey Morris (Bart Shatto); Dr. Jack Seward (Shonn Wiley), proprietor of one of England's finest lunatic asylums; and the proper aristo Arthur Holmwood (Chris Hoch). Still, she ends up making time with the seductive count, singing of "the fear and the desire, I was on fire, the ground moved as we kissed," a typical example of Black's knack for lyrical invention.

After nearly an hour of eerie sound effects, chipper dialogue recalling Regency romance novels and regular doses of Wildhorn's blandly emotive music, a true note of horror is finally struck when one realizes that Van Helsing, Dracula's famed foe, has not yet made an appearance.

Merciful God!

But even when he does, in the surprising person of Stephen McKinley Henderson, best known for his fine work in August Wilson plays, things do not exactly jump to a fast track. Van Helsing, the doomed Lucy's defenders and the now-traumatized Harker manfully marshal the usual resources to battle the beast, trudging down Transylvania-way -- with a layover in Budapest, was it?

Meanwhile, Mina, like Lucy, shows a marked ambivalence to her tormentor: She pays lip service to her love for Jonathan and all things holy while lapsing regularly into anthems in which she avows her attraction to the dark side: "Why do we risk all we have? Why give in to the lure that calls from everything forbidden? What attracts us to the night? And captures us however hard we fight?"

A more pressing question: How does a vocally gifted, entrancingly pretty young actress develop a knack for entombing herself in Broadway bombs?

Errico, previously trapped in high-profile duds "High Society" and "Amour," performs with a conviction that would be inspiring if it were not somehow dispiriting. Her acting is sincere, her singing plush and note-perfect, but the surging histrionics of Wildhorn's songs do not flatter her voice. As ballad after ballad rises to a mechanical climax, even Errico's burnished soprano begins to grate, and the pulse-racing responses Wildhorn so resolutely -- and repeatedly -- aims for fail to materialize.

The evening's ostensible star fares worst of all. Hewitt, a brassy, burly Frank N. Furter in Broadway's recent revival of "The Rocky Horror Show," is given little scope either to scare us or seduce us. Dracula spends more time straddling various mechanical contraptions than either of the two leading ladies. Whizzing above the stage, dangling upside-down, bopping back and forth on rollers, poor Hewitt comes to resemble a human screen-saver, endlessly zipping about the stage without settling down long enough to make a distinct impression.

The musical, in any case, is beyond saving. Raising neither smiles nor shudders, this turgid retread of Stoker's sanguinary tale of sin, sex and salvation merely gives rise to the dire reflection that eternal damnation seems a benign fate when measured against the prospect of a lifetime of Frank Wildhorn musicals.


Variety
08/19/2004

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