To bite or not to bite? What's a conflicted vampire with severe identity issues to do? That seems to be the question haunting the troubled title character in "Lestat," the morose new musical that opened Tuesday at Broadway's Palace Theatre.
Based on "The Vampire Chronicles" of Anne Rice, this lavish show is a rather joyless affair, glum and sober-sided despite yeoman work by a strong cast that throws itself into the musical with gusto.
And getting gusto out of the show's dutiful score - music by Elton John and lyrics by Bernie Taupin - is hard work. John's melodies occasionally tantalize but, for the most part, settle for bombast or indistinct meanderings that quickly evaporate. And Taupin's unsurprising lyrics often are easy to anticipate.
But then, the dialogue is a bit simplistic, too. The characters don't converse. They speak in pronouncements, momentous declarations that take on the tone of official statements from Above, or maybe that should be Below.
Linda Woolverton's book is at least (relatively) clear-headed. Apparently, a lot of work has been done clarifying the plot since the musical tried out in San Francisco last December.
Lestat, played with eager anguish by a game Hugh Panaro, gets turned into a vampire by old Magnus who sees the young man as a worthy heir. One bite, and, boom, Lestat is off and chomping his way through late 18th century France.
He even turns his mother (the lovely Carolee Carmello) into a vampire. Her health is failing and the promise of living forever is too much to resist. She embraces her new life much more wholeheartedly than her reluctant son.
Lestat finds solace in the arms of childhood friend Nicolas (Roderick Hill). Maybe more than solace. The homoerotic quotient in the musical is pretty high as our hero tries to turn his best buddy into a vampire.
Yet Nicolas, it turns out, is "too pure for the Dark Gift. It destroyed his mind," sniffs Lestat's vampire nemesis, the snarling Armand, played by Drew Sarich. So poor Nicolas is consumed in a burst of flames.
By Act 2, it's a new century and Lestat has found his way to New Orleans where he hooks up with the dissolute Louis (Jim Stanek) and a litlle girl (Allison Fischer) he meets wandering the streets. Both friend and child soon join the undead in what has to be Louisiana's most bizarre household: gay parents and the fiercest kid on Broadway since Patty McCormack played the murderous Rhoda Penmark in "The Bad Seed."
Fischer provides the evening's unintentional camp highlight, a petulant ditty called "I Want More," in which she sings about needing blood and not the dolls her proxy same-sex parents present to her as gifts.
Technically, the show is Gothic chic, starting with Derek McLane's dark settings. They are appropriately spooky, using multimedia projections to quickly place the story in a spooky woods, a forbidding chateau and even the New Orleans docks. And whenever a victim gets it in the neck, projections begins to glimmer and glow with psychedelic intensity. The costumes by Susan Hilferty are suitably sumptuous.
Even with an excess of story, director Robert Jess Roth briskly moves things along although Lestat's neurotic musings eventually grow wearisome. Roth and Woolverton worked together on Disney's stage version of "Beauty and the Beast," which at least has a spirited, can-do heroine.
Rice's hero is a model of moralistic dithering throughout his long, never-ending life. At one point, Armand chides Lestat, telling him he is "desperate to be good despite yourself."
And that's perhaps the root of the problem with the show itself. indecision doesn't make for the most compelling of musical theater.
These days, it might be accurate to say musicals are marketed, rather than created.
Take "Lestat," the third vampire musical in the last 3 ½ years. To call it the best of the three is not much praise, since its short-lived predecessors were abysmal.
The advantage it has, however, over Frank Wildhorn's "Dracula" and Jim Steinman's "Dance of the Vampires" is that it is based on the work of two brand names with huge followings - Elton John and Anne Rice.
The musical, with a book by Linda Woolverton based on Rice's "The Vampire Chronicles," meanders all over the world, from rural France to Egypt to New Orleans, over several centuries.
Its globetrotting title character constantly increases the vampire population by first biting his victims in the neck, then offering them blood from his wrist. (Given how campy the show is, I was surprised that this two-step procedure, performed in a highly exaggerated manner, wasn't developed into a dance.)
Often the plot strains to shock us. Lestat's first great romance is with his mother.
Several of his amorous conquests are young men. But because its emotional content is zilch, none of this has any particular force.
There is one song that struck me as better than most of what John (and his longtime collaborator, lyricist Bernie Taupin) turn out: "Right Before My Eyes."
One of the show's greatest assets is Hugh Panaro. His singing of "Right Before My Eyes," which begins high in his gorgeous tenor voice, is beautiful and dramatic. With his matinee-idol looks, Panaro certainly could have made better material exciting.
The same is true of everything the enormously gifted Carolee Carmelio does as his mother. She is one of the treasures of our musical theater, and it is sad that she seldom gets material worthy of her talent.
The one novelty in the treatment of the vampire theme is the introduction of a prepubescent vampire, a sort of bloodsucking Eloise, snarkily played by Allison Fischer.
Otherwise the material itself is flat - never truly imaginative, never betraying a sense of irony, which might act as a leavening agent (as in the 1977 nonmusical "Dracula," with Frank Langella's unforgettable performance).
The supporting cast is strong, especially Michael Genet as a senior vampire. Derek McLane's sets -especially a brooding Sphinx - are full of the appropriate phantasmagoric charm. Susan Hilferty's costumes are similarly lush.
The mediocrity of "Lestat" might be an obstacle for the average theatergoer, but it should provide none for fans of Elton and Rice.
Are vampires half-dead or half-alive? It was a question raised by Elton John's new musical "Lestat," which last night arrived - either half-dead or, perhaps, half-alive - at the Palace Theatre.
The track record of vampire musicals is generally horrifying. But backers still seem willing to, as it were, stake them.
"Lestat," based on the well-known Anne Rice novels, has a book by Linda Woolverton, of "Beauty and the Beast" repute, and lyrics by Bernie Taupin, who has collaborated with Sir Elton on some of his biggest pop hits.
But "Lestat" is not likely to top many charts: It is a musical only the chief accountant of a blood bank could love.
First up, what is it all about? Honestly, I'm not quite sure. And it would be a cliche to adapt that glib quip and say about two hours and 25 minutes.
But let's try. Now, there is this French guy, Lestat, who becomes a vampire after slaughtering a pack of wolves in the woods - don't ask - then goes to Paris, does something rather nasty to his own mother, Gabrielle, who thus also gets to be a vampire.
Blood ties, as it were.
Did I tell you the time was - at least I think it was - somewhere in the 18th century? Or perhaps earlier.
Vampires, I am told, have very little sense of time. To them, one century is pretty much as good as another.
Having initiated, as it were, Mom - who turns out to be something of a blood sport herself - Lestat initiates other people.
What is very clear by the end - it probably took a few centuries, and certainly feels like it - is that vampires have very difficult and unhappy lives. You really don't want to be one.
Especially if it involved music as loud and boring as poor old Lestat has to plow his way through. It's not a life fit for a dog, let alone a bat.
The simple rhymes of Taupin's lyrics and the discursive book by Woolverton are both well down to the standard of Sir Elton's dirge.
Common honesty, as well as sweet charity, demands both praise and sympathy for the cast. Hugh Panaro is especially gallant as the bloodsucking eponymous hero, lifting his voice above the bluster and seemingly making swashbuckling light of the text.
Carolee Carmello suggests a sprightly mother, Drew Sarich is fine as a senior vampire of a different bloodgroup from the hero, and Jim Stanek, Roderick Hill, Michael Genet and Allison Fischer - playing the nastiest little girl in need of a transfusion currently on Broadway - do their best to keep afloat a ship resolutely searching for icebergs.
And finding them all too easily...if not all too soon.
A promising new contender has arrived in a crowded pharmaceutical field. Joining the ranks of Ambien, Lunesta, Sonata and other prescription lullaby drugs is "Lestat," the musical sleeping pill that opened last night at the Palace Theater.
Adapted from Anne Rice's cult novels "The Vampire Chronicles," and featuring songs by Elton John and Bernie Taupin, this portrait of blood suckers in existential crisis gives resounding credence to the legend that vampires are masters of hypnosis. Dare to look upon "Lestat" and keep your eyelids from growing heavier and heavier and heavier.
Remember when the fiends with the fangs were fun? In the late 1970's Frank Langella had 'em swooning in the aisles as the fatally erotic title character of "Dracula." But recently bat boys have been unable to get much respect from Broadway audiences.
Somewhere along the way it was decided that vampires were meant to sing and dance, leading to a series of undignified stage portrayals that should have had the Undead Anti-Defamation League up in arms (or wings) long ago.
"Lestat," the maiden Broadway production of Warner Brothers Theater Ventures, is the third vampire musical to open in the last few years, and it seems unlikely to break the solemn curse that has plagued the genre. Directed by Robert Jess Roth from a book by Linda Woolverton, the show admittedly has higher aspirations and (marginally) higher production values than the kitschy "Dance of the Vampires" (2002) and the leaden "Dracula: The Musical" (2004), both major-league flops.
Set in France and New Orleans (with a few exotic road trips) in the 18th and 19th centuries, "Lestat" makes a point of sending up the archetypal vampire myth, with a melodramatic play-within-a-play (performed by a ragtag Parisian theater troupe) seemingly inspired by the Bram Stoker novel that introduced Count Dracula.
The characters in "Lestat," you see, don't do silly things like turn into bats. They are serious, Dostoyevskyan creatures who ponder the nature of good and evil and the torture of human — all right, make that inhuman — solitude.
Such concerns do not stop them from sounding or looking like the stiff, sub-Heathcliffian figures of period romance novels (even if they don't approach the eye-candy heights of Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt in the Warner Brothers film of Ms. Rice's "Interview With the Vampire"). Hugh Panaro, in the title role, resembles a slimmed-down, foppish Fabio, the onetime top paperback cover model for such fare. And there is plenty of dialogue to match. "Whatever happened out there with the wolves has changed you, Lestat." Or: "I will never find solace! She was my solace! She stood between me and the abyss!"
Ms. Rice's novels can be similarly hokey. But the prose is steeped in an unwavering, baroque musicality that carries readers along despite themselves. "Lestat," which vacillates feebly between low tragedy and lower camp, has nothing like that self-assurance. The pulpy and mostly interchangeable songs by Sir Elton and Mr. Taupin, one of the most successful top-40 teams of all time ("Your Song," "Rocket Man"), are rarely the requisite purple but instead a synthetic shade of mauve.
The musical staging by Matt West consists of halfhearted pastiches, which include a vampire mythology number that bizarrely reworks Jerome Robbins's "Small House of Uncle Thomas" ballet in "The King and I." Derek McLane's sets are surprisingly minimal, with the most arresting effects generated by the light show that occurs anytime a new vampire is created. (The lighting is by Kenneth Posner, with "visual concept design" by Dave McKean.)
As for the actors, they mostly tend to make you think that vampires are a petulant lot, always complaining in sing-song voices about how lonely they are and what a drag it is to live forever. Theatergoers who want to resist the soporific spell of this whinefest may possibly find amusement (or indignation) in dissecting "Lestat" as an old-fashioned allegory of homosexuality as a life-warping affliction.
"Lestat" brings to mind a fancy-dress version of "The Boys in the Band," Mart Crowley's landmark play about the miseries of being gay. Here again is a set of expensively attired men who, when they aren't on the prowl for a luscious new conquest, lament the all-consuming urges that have turned them into outcasts.
Louis (Jim Stanek, who in his 19th-century wig looks like the writer Fran Lebowitz), Lestat's New Orleans housemate, sings:
I don't think I can take another night
Of these instincts that I fight
This overwhelming dread
Of feeling damned inside.
And the evil Parisian vampire Armand, played by Drew Sarich as a sustained hissy fit, is a first cousin to Harold, the most viperish and self-loathing of the characters in Mr. Crowley's play.
And consider Lestat's relationships with his disapproving father (hates him) and his doting mother (loves, loves, loves her). He so adores his mom, a marquise (played by the ever-game power balladeer Carolee Carmello), that he makes her a vampire too, giving her a chance to dress up like one of the boys, join the hunt and become the undead's answer to Auntie Mame.
At least the leading female vampires are livelier than their male counterparts. The closest "Lestat" comes to so-bad-it's-good camp is in a subplot that might be called "Claudia Has Two Daddies." Claudia is the little orphan girl brought home as a peace offering to the sulking Louis by Lestat, who turns her into a vampire after finding her destitute on the streets of New Orleans.
As portrayed by Allison Fischer, Claudia is a high-decibel version of Patty McCormack in "The Bad Seed," all sweetness, light and lethal bite. She provides the show's high-low point when she throws a musical temper tantrum after being reprimanded for killing her tutor. In a voice to bring down the walls of Jericho, she sings:
Look at you, you disapprove
Like two fussy mothers.
Who are you to criticize
The habits of another?
The song's title, repeated imperiously throughout the lyrics, is "I Want More." So do we, little Claudia. But this show isn't the place to find it.
There's no love like a mother's love, especially if your mom happens to be a vampire. Unless, that is, you have two fathers among the living dead.
Those are just a couple of the twists on family values that threaten to make Lestat (* * ½ out of four), which opened Tuesday at the Palace Theatre, the religious right's worst nightmare. Sadly, though, this new Broadway musical based on Anne Rice's popular accounts of bloodlust is no more provocative than your average exercise in post-Andrew Lloyd Webber bombast.
The show also isn't nearly as bad as you may have expected, given the scathing notices it received during a tryout run in San Francisco In January. That's in large part because of composer Elton John, whose melodies are sharper, surer and less shamelessly derivative than Lloyd Webber's. Lestat marks John's first theater collaboration with his longtime partner in pop, Bernie Taupin, whose lyrics aren't always as winning in their romanticism as the hits that made the duo rock's answer to Rodgers and Hammerstein.
But as previous Broadway outings have proven, not all fiction lends itself to musical theater. It couldn't have been a piece of cake craning a libretto around the story of a bloodsucking hunk who seduces or is seduced into sharing his powers with his mom, a pre-adolescent girl and a succession of similarly yummy young men and women. And sure enough, Woolverton's alternately pretentious and goofy script, accompanied by a series of pretentious and goofy special effects, saps the material of any real erotic tension or menace.
The real syrup here, though, pours from Robert Jess Roth's overstated direction and Linda Woolverton's inadvertently comical book, which culls all the melodrama but none of the complexity from its original source. Woolverton has tightened the libretto considerably since winter's San Francisco earthquake, focusing on Rice's first two novels, 1976's Interview with the Vampire and 1985's The Vampire Lestat. The actors all look good and sing, well, loudly. In the title role, Hugh Panaro looks as if he just stepped out of a Calvin Klein ad and croons with all the nuance of an American ldol contestant, but he still manages to project a certain tortured tenderness. As his underage victim, Claudia, Allison Fischer belts out her tunes with a bratty exuberance that brings to mind June in Gypsy more than Dracuia's daughter.
Jim Stanek and Roderick Hill are more sedate as two of the guys Lestat digs, and digs into, the most. But Drew Sarich lends additional Sturm und Drang, und schmaltz, as our hero's perpetually peeved rival.
Carolee Carmello, as Lestat's ailing mother turned partner-in-crime, comes closest to evoking any real creepiness. If this vampires' tale had more of that bite, it might not be so draining.
Die young. Live forever. At least half that tagline likely will prove prescient in describing the fate of "Lestat" on Broadway. Warner Bros. deserves some respect for remaining committed to fixing a beleaguered project, pumping considerable financial and creative resources into the vampire musical since its critical hammering during the San Francisco tryout in January. But ultimately, the studio's nascent theatrical division has done no favors to the lost souls wandering the Palace Theater stage. After "Dance of the Vampires" and "Dracula," it might be time to nail the coffin lid shut on all belting bloodsuckers.
The show may be much improved, but it's still sadly beyond rescue. While its fundamental problems are manifold, chief among them is unwieldy, densely plotted source material that resists this kind of presentation; and a profound mismatch of that material with the creative talent involved.
In his first theatrical pairing with lyricist Bernie Taupin, Elton John's songs lean mainly toward lush, bloated ballads in the Andrew Lloyd Webber or Frank Wildhorn musical vernacular, occasionally dipping into a pop mode that only dimly recalls the songwriting team's evergreen collaborations of the 1970s. Rarely does the music adequately reflect the dark complexity or propel the busy narrative of goth-lit priestess Anne Rice's pulpy "The Vampire Chronicles" saga.
The more significant drawback, however, is a director, Robert Jess Roth, and writer, Linda Woolverton, ill-suited to the project. Having collaborated on Disney's long-running "Beauty and the Beast," Roth and Woolverton employ a storytelling style still stuck in the simplistic strokes of that kid-friendly show, lurching episodically from one incident to the next without getting under the skin of Rice's undead characters.
Denied psychological texture and anything beyond a cursory grounding in Rice's elaborate vampire mythology, this condensed tale -- set in the 18th century and lifted primarily from "Interview With the Vampire" and "The Vampire Lestat" -- seems merely silly, a collision of over-earnest melodrama and unintentional camp.
Actually, with its rampant homoerotic elements and characters locked in a primal struggle to accept their nature, it seems like the prosaic plot of a gay vampire soap opera ("Guiding Bite," perhaps?) that's simultaneously overwrought and coy.
Lestat (Hugh Panaro) is a brooding French mama's boy with a permanently clenched jaw and Michael Bolton's old hairdo. After being hit on by a predatory daddy type who gives him "the dark gift," he settles into a pattern of choosing bad boyfriends. First is his childhood pal, drippy violinist Nicolas (Roderick Hill). "One savage kiss is all he needs," sings Lestat, but for reasons that remain mysterious, poor Nicky turns out to be too fragile for the nightlife.
Lestat moves on, wracked by guilt, leaving Europe for decadent New Orleans. Distraction comes via freshly widowed Louis (Jim Stanek), but he turns out to be another whining liability who can't get with the program.
Lestat adopts Claudia (Allison Fischer), a growth-challenged brat with an eating disorder (she gets a binge number in "I Want More"), who does nothing to sweeten their home life.
When little Claudia turns vengeful and tries to kill Lestat, the family dissolves, only to reconvene back in Paris. But more bitter division awaits thanks to Armand (Drew Sarich), a snarky queen who's had a thing for Lestat since the old days.
Not to forget one vital element, the first act also has heavy mother-son action. To paraphrase the coming-out scene between Lestat and his dying mother, Gabrielle (Carolee Carmello): "Mom, I'm a vampire," says he. "Cool," she replies. "Make me one too, son." Fangs pierce neck, and pretty soon Gab has had a Stevie Nicks makeover and is channeling Faye Dunaway, leaping on a passing fop like some shrieking WWE banshee.
Though reportedly much streamlined since San Francisco, act one remains hopelessly encumbered by exposition -- Lestat's slaughter of a pack of wolves, kickstarting his fixation with blood; a deadweight "Morality Play" interlude about vampire history; Lestat's trek along the Devil's Road to find forefather Marius (Michael Genet), a kind of vampire Dalai Lama with the charisma of an emoticon.
Much of this is minimally involving for the uninitiated. For instance, Lestat and Nicolas ramble on for no good reason about life in the Auvergne: "The Black Pudding Faire, the Goat Meat Eater's Festival, and let's not forget Bombastic Jacques and ... " What?
Act two becomes less clunky, sticking to the more accessible plot of "Interview With the Vampire." But even the most accomplished ensemble would have trouble breathing life into these bloodless character outlines or their hastily sketched bonds.
The cast fares better musically than dramatically, with Panaro and Carmello, especially, exhibiting powerful voices. Lestat's "Sail Me Away" might have wielded some emotional impact in another context, as might Claudia's song of impossible yearning for adulthood, "I'll Never Have That Chance," persuasively sung by Fischer. Carmello forcefully puts across "Beautiful Boy" and overblown bloodlust hymn "The Crimson Kiss."
John's melodies are generic at best, offering little that lingers in the mind, but Taupin's clumsy, overly literal lyrics are the bigger burden.
Like Roth's inert direction of the book scenes, Matt West's musical staging is mostly static, becoming briefly animated only in the Creole-flavored "Welcome to the New World." (Choreographer Jonathan Butterell was brought in for some creative doctoring but is uncredited.)
Visually, the show is flat and underpopulated. While Susan Hilferty's costumes display plenty of dashing period style and Kenneth Posner's lighting has the requisite gothic gloominess, designer Derek McLane relies too much on projections splashed across tattered parchment panels to seed atmosphere. And the effects that convey the hallucinatory rapture of blood being tasted seem lifted from faux-arty horror.
It's the absence of more lurid or even fresh imagination that makes this lethargic vampire tale fatally dull.