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'Dance of the Vampires': Broadway fiasco

By FREDERICK M. WINSHIP   |   Dec. 24, 2002 at 2:14 PM   |   Comments

NEW YORK, Dec. 24 (UPI) -- The presence of Michael Crawford of "Phantom of the Opera" fame as chief vampire in a beautiful and imaginative $12 million musical production "Dance of the Vampires" isn't likely to save it from being one of Broadway's most spectacular fiascos.

The much touted show at the Minskoff Theater is the latest attempt to transform Bram Stoker's undying story about the undead in 1880s Transylvania into entertainment acceptable to a new generation of theater-goers, as well as a chance to see the Tony Award-winning Crawford back again on Broadway after years of Las Vegas engagements and making platinum records.

"Dance of the Vampires" got its start in Vienna as a German-language musical based on Roman Polanski's 1967 spoof film, "The Fearless Vampire Killers," and is still running there after 5 years. It has a book by Michael Kunze, a Czech-born writer for the stage, music by Jim Steinman, best known as a pop songwriter-record producer, and direction by John Rando, who won a Tony for the current Broadway hit, "Urinetown."

With so many hard-hitters involved, one would expect a hit show, but instead it's a mostly unfunny entertainment satirizing Stoker's Transylvanian tale in an amateurish way and robbing it of its power to scare and titillate. It also introduces a lewd vulgarity to the story, including a gay vampire, that has been fortunately absent in all its previous reincarnations.

This show will probably best be remembered for introducing Max Von Essen, a young singing actor who could be a star, in his first big Broadway role and bringing veteran actor Rene Auberjonois back to the stage after years in television. It also adds to the luster of a radiant young actress, Mandy Gonzales, recently seen on Broadway as Amneris in "Aida."

Crawford, in the role of the glowering Count von Krolock, teeters about on inch-and-a-half heels, wearing his hair long and carefully coiffed and looking like death warmed over. His singing is stentorian in the big climaxes but without any real musical quality, and he manages to look silly, even miscast, most of the time. But he does get an equivalent to the Phantom's "Music of the Night" aria in a so-so ballad titled "Come With Me" that uses the word "night" repeatedly.

Maybe longer incisor teeth would have given Crawford's blood-sucking the appearance of more than just a nip on the neck. Maybe he should never have doffed his Phantom mask. As the show progresses thuddingly, one wonders how a star of Crawford's magnitude ever let himself got involved in anything that has him saying a punning line such as "Read my apocalypse." Here's how he explained it in an interview:

"I've obviously cornered the market for dysfunctional characters on Broadway. I was attracted to the show by the challenge of the music. It's a completely different type for me. You have to sound as if you're mis-using your voice. But you're not."

Auberjonois comes across a thousand times better in the straight role of Professor Abronsius, the vampire expert from Heidelberg University who is out to drive a stake through Krolock's heart. Handsomely white-bearded, Auberjonois give his character some heft while never forgetting that the show is essentially a camp put-down of the Dracula legend.

Playing Alfred, Abronsius' sidekick or "factotum," von Essen is a delight, so in love with the innkeeper's pretty daughter Sarah (Gonzales) that he seems to glow. Youthful in appearance and good looking, though not handsome in the matinee idol sense, Essen is also blessed with a resonant tenor that make his big solo, "For Sarah," and his duet with Sarah, "Braver Than We Are," soar to the huge theater's upper reaches.

Gonzales has a quicksilver quality as an actress that is very appealing and a fresh, supple soprano bell-like in clarity that is wasted on such musical tripe as the horrendously worded love duet she sings with Krolock, appropriately titled "Total Eclipse of the Heart."

She hasn't much competition from other females in the large cast except for the performance of Leah Hocking as Magda, the jolly village whore. Liz McCartney is passable as Rebecca, Sarah's husband-hating mother, and someone facetiously listed in the program as Dame Edith Shorthouse is a hoot as Countess Krolock.

David Gallo's sets and Ken Billington's lighting are a scrumptious combination in the creation of an enchanted forest and a candlelit stairway to the stars to a fantastically eerie burial crypt and a creaky portcullis of the Krolock castle. Ann Hould-Ward's hundreds of costumes -- including sexy shrouds -- outdo those of the most ambitious Las Vegas show for a extravagance and a rainbow range of colors in addition to a pervasive blood red.

John Carrafa's choreography for ghouls is just as professional but is not quite good enough to give a lift to this bloated production.

The waltz he has devised for the mirrored ballroom scene celebrating Krolock's seduction of Sarah, with some of the dancers actually floating in the air (by wires), and the "Seize the Night" dream duet for dancing stand-ins for Alfred and Sarah, are Carrafa's best work, a cut above the crazed dance finale with almost everyone in the cast dressed as vampires.

This is logical, according to Kunze's book, which has vampires procreating new generations of bloodsuckers so that the final scene of the show can be set in today's Times Square peopled with contemporary vampires and their victims. It isn't enough to make your blood run cold, but it's good for a laugh in a show that has too few of them.

© 2002 United Press International, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Any reproduction, republication, redistribution and/or modification of any UPI content is expressly prohibited without UPI's prior written consent.
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