Few musicals in recent years have created the expectations of "Dance of the Vampires.”
No one, mind you, expected anything good. But based on advance reports, many nurtured the hope that "Vampires" might be truly awful, like the legendary "Carrie: The Musical."
It is my sad duty to report that, although the writing is amateurish and vulgar, the music mindless and the acting - for the most part - ludicrously broad, "Vampires" does not reach the "Carrie" threshold of awfulness. In part, this failure stems from its halfheartedness. "Carrie," with its fabulous pig-killing song and dance, seemed totally unaware of how ghastly it was. In "Vampires," the creators are always winking at us, as if to say, "Isn't this camp?"
What's hard to understand is why Michael Crawford, its star, would want to appear in a show that spends so much energy sending up the work he did in "Phantom of the Opera."
His face bloated (is this vampire gorging on the wrong blood type?), costumed to look chunky rather than seductive and much of his singing prerecorded, Crawford seems a parody of the role that, in this country, at least, made him famous. "Vampires" was originally directed five years ago in Vienna by Roman Polanski, on whose film "The Fearless Vampire Killers" it is based. It's still running there. The German book, by Michael Kunze, has been adapted by Jim Steinman ("Total Eclipse of the Heart"), who also did the music and lyrics, and by David Ives. The story, about an innocent girl seduced by a vampire count, is makeshift, though it has a nice surprise at the end. Steinman's lyrics are basic, and often crude. A peasant chorus, for example, sings, "Garlic, garlic/ The secret of staying young./Garlic, garlic/ That's why we're so well hung."
The music is similarly sophisticated. As the villain's nemesis, Rene Auberjonois is remarkably restrained. Mandy Gonzalez sings well as the heroine, as does Max Von Essen as her boyfriend. Ron Orbach is fine as a jolly peasant. The quality of a show is often in inverse proportion to the amount of time the cast spends mingling with the audience. There is much running up and down the aisles, a sure sign of desperation. A critic a few rows ahead of me was menaced by a vampire with a lascivious tongue. Many years ago, Julian Beck of the Living Theater forced his tongue down my throat, which I guess immunized me against further such incursions. No cliché is absent from John Rando's direction and John Carrafa's choreography. If "Vampires" were in some tiny East Village theater, it might be cute. Here, it's an embarrassment.
Oh Buffy, you Vampire Slayer - where were you when we needed you? There are altogether far too many vapid vampires in the new musical "Dance of the Vampires," which opened at the Minskoff Theatre last night.
The necessary distinction between the undead and the unliving was never quite clear enough in this carelessly engineered, Michael (the Phantom) Crawford-driven vehicle, loosely based on Roman Polanski's 1967 movie.
Unfortunately, Jim Steinman and Michael Kunze, the creators of "Dance of the Vampires," went not for the jugular but the giggular.
For a lavish Broadway musical, a more subtle and consistently sinister approach with a touch of ghoulish humor would have paid better dividends.
Not all is lost. Some of the jokes work and David Gallo's scenery is opulent and witty, just as Ann Hould-Ward's costumes are extravagant.
Some of the special effects - particularly those involving mirrors (remember that vampires cast no reflections) - are spectacular, as are John Rando's staging and John Carrafa's choreography.
Credit is also due "fight director and illusionist" Rick Sordelet.
Steinman has written music and lyrics that are never less than acceptable, but his book, a collaboration with Kunze and David Ives, is muddled and weak - and the performances suffer as a result.
Crawford, who has gathered some girth since "Phantom," can still, as the villainous Count von Krolock, turn on that mellifluous yet sinister voice.
As the young couple he threatens, the pretty, clear-voiced Mandy Gonzalez and Max von Essen, are a lively pair, and the unflappable Rene Auberjonois is superb as the incompetent Professor Abronsius.
But despite Crawford's undeniable star presence and the enthusiasm of the cast, this vampire excursion needs a transfusion.
Where's a mask when you need one?
Michael Crawford, who sported a dashing half-mask for his Tony-winning performance in ''The Phantom of the Opera'' in 1988, would have done well to have donned a fuller version for his return to Broadway. Rigged up as a taxidermic variation on his Phantom persona, Mr. Crawford opened last night in a show called ''Dance of the Vampires'' at the Marquis Theater. It is an enterprise to be associated with only under the veil of anonymity.
Actually, some far from anonymous names, in addition to that of Mr. Crawford, spice the credits for this clueless musical adaptation of ''The Fearless Vampire Killers,'' Roman Polanski's spoof horror movie of 1967. This is a production that inspires you to check your program open-mouthed at intermission to make you sure you didn't misread it.
Why, surely that can't be that suave trouper René Auberjonois hiding so uneasily behind a beard and mustache as a bumbling ghoul-hunting professor. Is it possible that John Rando, who won a Tony for his direction of ''Urinetown,'' is responsible for the wit-free staging? Or that John Carrafa, who brought effortless charm to the dances in ''Into the Woods,'' oversaw the thudding choreography?
Did David Ives, the author of the blissful ''All in the Timing,'' truly collaborate on the light-as-lead book? And those funguslike sets that look so expensive and so cheap, that junior-prom lighting: they can't be the work of David Gallo and Ken Billington, can they?
It isn't, of course, just the undead who salivate at the smell of blood. Theater disaster cultists, a breed that makes Vlad the Impaler look small-time, have had their fangs at the ready ever since the early buzz began on ''Vampires,'' which features songs by the rock composer Jim Steinman and was first presented in Vienna with a book and lyrics in German by Michael Kunze.
Hopes were high that this musical might be in the league of platinum-plated flops like ''Carrie'' and ''Moose Murders.'' And it's true that there are moments that climb into the stratosphere of legendary badness.
No one, even after a quart of straight gin, would be able to erase the memory of Mr. Crawford as a blood-sucking aristocrat and Mandy Gonzalez as his toothsome prey, shrieking a revised version of Mr. Steinman's pop hit ''Total Eclipse of the Heart.'' The scene is perfectly accessorized by a phalanx of pasty, hooded creatures, holding (I swear) what appear to be flashlights beneath their faces, like monsters in a homemade spook house.
For the most part, however, ''Vampires'' exudes the less exalted, simply embarrassed feeling of a costume party that everyone got all dressed up for and then decided wasn't such a good idea.
The show would appear to be trying to capture the spirit of ''The Rocky Horror Show,'' the musical that brought high-heeled camp to electric rock.
But ''Vampires,'' which is set in a dark and moldy place called Lower Belabartòkovich in the 1880's, doesn't have anything like the same sustained point of view. The original movie, while hardly top-drawer Polanski, was at least true to its goofy intentions, which brought to mind a post-sexual-liberation answer to ''Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy.''
This show, on the other hand, wants to be campy, preachy, lewd and romantically rhapsodic all at once. It careens through everything from a limp Gilbert and Sullivan-style patter song to a series of all-ghoul dance numbers that, with their tattered shroudlike costumes by Ann Hould-Ward, suggest a bunch of drunk high school kids trying to replicate Michael Jackson's ''Thriller'' video.
The overall effect is of a desperately protracted skit from a summer replacement variety show of the late 1960's, the kind on which second-tier celebrities showed up to make fun of themselves. Dialogue sample: When Mr. Auberjonois's character introduces his assistant (Max von Essen) as ''my young factotum,'' a loutish inkeeper (Ron Orbach) says, ''If that means what I think it does, those two can leave right now.''
Mr. Crawford gets his share of such clunkers, including his opening line, made after his entrance from a skull-festooned black casket: ''God has left the building.'' Perhaps he chose ''Vampires'' as his ticket back to Broadway because his role here does bear a resemblance to the diabolical but lonely Phantom. It even has its own version of ''The Music of the Night,'' a lumbering ballad called ''Come With Me.''
Such parallels tend to blur memories of Mr. Crawford's genuinely haunting performance in ''Phantom.'' Mr. Crawford, who has done time in Las Vegas, appears to have picked up a stylistic trick or two there.
With his swept-back lacquered hair and black-on-white contour makeup, he looks like a Goth version of Siegfried, Roy and Wayne Newton combined. Now that, you have to admit, is pretty scary.
"On a cold winter night," the wily vampire asks the fair young maiden, "would you offer your throat to the wolf with the red roses?"
His pickup line, delivered in the first scene of the spectacularly idiotic new Broadway musical Dance of the Vampires, paraphrases part of a song intro on Meat Loaf's 1977 album Bat Out of Hell. Dance's composer/lyricist and co-librettist, Jim Steinman, wrote the songs on that kitsch-rock opus, and I suppose he's entitled to a little self-referential fun.
There is little else worth defending, though, in Dance, which opened Monday at the Minskoff Theatre. Clocking in at over 2½ hours with a mercilessly brief intermission, Steinman's latest effort offers none of the inspired cheesiness that made Bat one of pop's great guilty pleasures. This Dance will appeal only to the most die-hard lovers of inadvertent camp — provided they bring plenty of Excedrin and don't eat too much beforehand.
Dance is based on the 1967 Roman Polanski flick The Fearless Vampire Killers. Following the lascivious Count von Krolock's efforts to conquer and destroy the virginal Sarah, it also nods to numerous bombastic rock operas and overproduced '80s rock videos. (Two dance sequences featuring von Krolock's creepy cronies play like Michael Jackson's Thriller as reconceived by a hormone-crazed 12-year-old boy.)
The most obvious reference, though, is Andrew Lloyd Webber's musical adaptation of Phantom of the Opera, another hyper-theatrical account of a seductive mon-stuh obsessed with a sweet young thing. Dance even stars original Phantom leading man Michael Crawford, who at 60 looks disturbingly like a cross between an aging David Hasselhoff and Donald Trump, and likely couldn't sing his way past either of them.
To his credit, Steinman seems to take himself less seriously than Sir Lloyd Webber has ever been known to. The most confusing aspect of Dance, in fact, is that Steinman and co-authors Michael Kunze (who wrote the book and lyrics for a previous German incarnation) and David Ives can't seem to make up their minds whether they want to offer audiences an epic love story or a bawdy satire.
They succeed at neither. The count's drippy romantic scenes with Sarah — one of which showcases a new version of the Steinman-penned Bonnie Tyler hit Total Eclipse of the Heart that's even more bloated and insipid than the original — are no more convincing or less goofy than the script's lame-brained attempts at comic relief. One feels especially for accomplished character actor Rene Auberjonois, who as von Krolock's nemesis gets to unveil such doozies as, "The moment this girl is by herself, he'll be on her like a metaphor."
Mandy Gonzalez's Sarah also deserves sympathy for having to feign sexual fascination with the unctuous, barely pre-geriatric Crawford — though not for her shrill, pitch-shy singing. And Max von Essen and Mark Price suffer gamely as Sarah's earnest young suitor and the count's bug-eyed patsy.
Condolences also to David Gallo, Ann Hould-Ward and Ken Billington, who clearly wasted a sizable budget and no dearth of imagination on flashy sets, costumes and lighting.
Glitz aficionados might even want to check out Dance purely for the scenery and special effects. But I warn all others: Be afraid. Be very afraid.
Can a vampire have an identity crisis? Perhaps we should leave that question to Anne Rice. But it's clear enough, on the evidence of "Dance of the Vampires," that a musical certainly can. This odd, expensive enterprise wants to be a light-hearted spoof of the hoary conventions of horror stories, and at the same time a churning Gothic musical extravaganza, a "Phantom of the Opera" with fangs. But you can't really be a standup comic and a blood-feasting member of the evil tribes of the undead, can you?
The "Phantom" comparison is made inescapable by the presence in the central role of Michael Crawford, returning to Broadway for the first time since he created the title role in that Andrew Lloyd Webber musical. Once again he is playing a ghoul with powerful vocal cords. But "Dance of the Vampires" is a far more dubious vehicle than "Phantom." Once the star's many fans have had their fill of his crooning, the musical will be left in B.O. limbo: It's not an outright comedy that would satisfy those who can't wait for Mel Brooks to get around to staging "Young Frankenstein," but as a serious musical -- well, it's pretty damn funny.
Loosely based on the Roman Polanski picture "The Fearless Vampire Killers" and originally staged in Vienna by Polanski himself, it features a score by Jim Steinman, best known for writing the Meat Loaf album "Bat Out of Hell" and its sequel. Anyone who got near a radio sometime in the early '80s probably also will recall his monster hit (forgive the pun) "Total Eclipse of the Heart."
If not, there are plenty of chances to hear it in "Dance of the Vampires," since strains from the song seem to recur every few minutes -- rising from the dead, as it were, just when you thought you'd heard the last reprise.
But the audience's reaction to hearing a snatch of the melody in the musical's opening minutes -- laughter -- illustrates the problem facing the men hired to help translate the musical from the original language (German) to the new one (contemporary Broadway), book writer David Ives and director John Rando ("Urinetown"). How do you create the kind of ironic musical comedy now in fashion to support the bombastic balladry Steinman specializes in? The short answer is, you don't, but Ives and Rando gamely pretend to be unaware of this. For a while, they show us a silly good time by ignoring the elephant in the room that is the score.
The musical opens with our dewy young heroine Sarah (Mandy Gonzalez) collecting mushrooms in the woods, outside the town of Lower Belabartokovich. She brushes aside her girlfriends' anxieties -- "What's there to fear in a gloomy forest in deepest Transylvania three nights before Halloween?" -- but soon the girls are in the midst of what is described in the script, aptly, as a "vampire rave" (I bet even Ms. Rice didn't know there was such a thing).
This event consists of a horde of skilled dancers in gray body paint and tattered shreds of Lycra darting across the stage executing John Carrafa's athletic choreography, an indescribable mixture of ballet, Broadway, MTV and "Solid Gold." It's pure camp, and intended as such. I think.
Enter, via a coffin that shoots up from the stage, Crawford's Count Giovanni von Krolock, speaking in an accent as indeterminately European as his name. (Romanian by way of a Brooklyn pizzeria?) "God has left the building!" he announces, and the brio with which Crawford embraces the sillier aspects of his role is endearing.
He seems happy to poke fun at his celebrated turn in "Phantom," which is alluded to, humorously and otherwise, more than once in the staging. And while his distinctive voice is largely in service to music that's similar in spirit, if not in specific language, to Lloyd Webber's, he gets to display his talent as a comic actor here; the timing's choice.
The musical continues in a likably shticky spirit for much of the first act, as we meet the local peasantry -- clad in costumes by Ann Hould-Ward that fairly scream Mitteleurope -- who give a cool welcome to "international vampiricist" Abronsius of Heidelberg, played with satiric flair by Rene Auberjonois. Heidelberg's "faithful factotum" Albert, a hunk in skin-tight breeches (amiably played and expertly sung by Max Von Essen), is Von Krolock's romantic rival for the heart of the fair Sarah.
Eventually, Albert and Abronsius head up to Von Krolock's castle to rescue the fair damsel from the Von Krolock clutches. The girl has been bewitched away by the king of the undead ("This is a special one-time offer!" he says, by way of persuasion) for a night in which she will be initiated into the unholy rites, a sort of debutante ball for blood-suckers.
Unfortunately, at Von Krolock's castle, the battle for Sarah's soul is sidetracked by an ancillary contest between good and evil: the tug of war between the show's dueling aesthetics. The goofy spoofing that continues erratically throughout the second act wrestles with the pompous, romantic power-pop represented by Steinman's score. Evil, as is often the case, carries the day, which is to say the fun ebbs away under an onslaught of thundering, portentous musical numbers.
The fabulously energetic corps of vampires, proving there are aerobics and possibly even more unpleasant forms of exercise after death, stage a big fright ballet, singing spooky things in Latin ("Dies Irae, kyrie, libera me, domine!") and spookier things in English ("You've got to curse the day/It's nothing but a merciless light/So open up your arms/And then you get down on your knees/You suck in all the darkness/And you're ready now to seize the night").
Alfred wails out his love for Sarah, singing of his willingness to "go to the grave like a sacrificial angel" -- whatever that is -- while Gonzalez herself gamely tries to out-Celine Dion Celine Dion, pummeling us with her admittedly impressive pipes on a couple more choruses of "Total Eclipse."
Crawford, meanwhile, prowls around David Gallo's series of lavish but cheesy Gothic sets -- heavy on dripping candles, skulls, spider imagery and hydraulics -- revealing Von Krolock's tormented soul in his big solo number, "Confessions of a Vampire," in which Steinman stakes a claim to social commentary with the climactic peroration: "There's a prediction that I now will make/And I'm sure I will be right/When the next millennium finally comes/The God most worshipped in this world/Will be the God of appetite."
The intentional silliness continues intermittently -- for example, the seduction scene staged by Von Krolock's flaming queen son, who's set his cap for Alfred ("When Love Is Inside You," it's tastefully called) -- but it is gradually swamped by the unintentional kind, exemplified by the second chorus number, "Eternity," in which a horde of blood-suckers clamber out of their graves, boogie around like the gang in Michael Jackson's "Thriller" video and sing indefensible lyrics like, "We've got style/We've got class/But we're stuck in the morass/Of eternity." Tell me about it!
There's a prediction that I now will make, too, and I'm sure I will be right: Michael Crawford will live to rue the day he chose this ludicrous musical as the vehicle for his Broadway return. He'll cringe at the mortifying makeup job, which makes him look like a drag queen whose vanity mirror could use a few more lightbulbs, and the pseudo-mullet wig, scarier than any of the show's other special effects. Even now, he must know his expressive, reedy singing voice deserves more distinguished material.
Of course, for now at least, Crawford can cringe all the way to the bank: On the strength of his massive "Phantom" following, the musical is doing strong business. Critical ridicule might dampen B.O. a bit, but the show will probably last out the season -- maybe longer. After all, the original production opened in Vienna in October 1997, and some five years later it is still on tour.
Presumably it all sounds better in German.