Regional Reviews: Cincinnati
The University of Cincinnati College - Conservatory of Music (CCM) has built a fine reputation for its productions of both modern and classic shows. However, the musical theater department's latest effort, Dracula: The Game of Love, is the world premiere of a new piece. Written by two alumni of the esteemed institution, this adaptation offers much to admire and is produced and performed with great skill.
This version of the well-known tale (still set in the late 1800s in England) opens with the strong-willed heroine Mina visiting her flighty friend Lucy. Mina is preparing to wed the handsome Jonathan Harker, who is away on business. As the two women socialize with friends that evening, including three separate suitors for Lucy, they are visited by a new arrival to town, the noble Count Dracula from Transylvania. News soon reaches Mina that her fiancé has returned, but is ill. Harker is still in shock over the events that have preceded him. He tells the tale of his encounter with Count Dracula in Transylvania and the horrors he witnessed there. His business trip was to complete the transfer of property in England to the nobleman. Mina doesn't believe Jonathan's terrifying story about the Count. In the meantime, Dracula has seduced Lucy and made her his victim. Harker and the three grief-stricken suitors, along with Professor Van Helsing (who has been summoned to the scene), seek to find and destroy the vampire. Mina, though she realizes that the stories about Dracula are true, invites him in and the two commence with "the game of love". Harker must not only defeat the vampire, but must also win back the love of his betrothed.
Dracula is the work of CCM graduates Richard Oberacker and Michael Lazar. This production directly follows another musical by the duo; The Gospel According to Fishman just completed a successful run at the Signature Theatre near Washington, DC, where it garnered rave reviews. Mr. Oberacker's music for Dracula is lush, melodic, and accessible. The score is sometimes reminiscent of other modern musicals such as Jekyll & Hyde, Jane Eyre, Titanic, The Secret Garden, and Into The Woods. However, for the most part, Oberacker finds a voice of his own. His music, which also includes some underscoring, does well to establish the dramatic tone of the piece. The lyrics are credited to both men and are intelligent and interesting. Song highlights include "When Did This Happen?", "In These Mountains", and the fine Act II opener "The Lady In White".
Like many other musicals, it is the book of Dracula: The Game of Love that is most problematic. Some characters, such as Renfield and Van Helsing, come off as unnecessary and muddled due to the lack of sufficient backstory. There are many instances where the plot either abandons logic or makes large assumptions of the audience's knowledge of the tale. The main difficulty, however, is the lack of clarity of the motivation that both Mina and Dracula have in regard to their "relationship." In this adaptation, Mina has been written as an independent and strong character. Why then would she allow herself to be seduced by the monster? There is no evidence of her being manipulated by the vampire's powers to be with him. Yet, why would she willingly submit to a creature she knows might kill her? Count Dracula's particularly strong feelings for Mina (as opposed to any other fair maiden) are likewise not specified or properly communicated. Mr. Oberacker and Mr. Lazar also share credit for the book. Though there are substantial changes required to solidify the piece, all of the problems can be fixed with some retooling of the script.
Aubrey Berg has made some smart choices as director of Dracula. The dramatic tension is sustained throughout and the show has an attention-grabbing flow. Despite killings and mutilations, the sight of blood is only implied, adding a classy theatricality to the gruesome scenes. It is only in the too quickly paced final twenty minutes where the need for improvement is noticeable. Diane Lala provides suitable choreography for the limited requirements of the piece. Roger Grodsky skillfully and energetically leads the talented thirteen-member orchestra.
CCM students are some of the finest in the country and their vocal and acting abilities are used wisely in Dracula. Most of the lead and supporting performers are seniors in their final Mainstage Series production at the conservatory. As Mina, Angela Gaylor has the largest role and is both musically and dramatically impressive. She brings the required depth and strength to the character and has a confident and attractive soprano voice. Annie Leri is both endearing and appropriately scary as Lucy, and her duet with Ms. Gaylor, "Our Little Secret", is one of the show's highlights. Jason Patrick Sands provides strong vocals and believable passion as the lovelorn Jonathan Harker. As Dracula, John-Andrew Clark does well in the underwritten title role, bringing the necessary exotic and mysterious quality to the well-known character. He is likewise vocally impressive. Nicholas Belton, Barry James, Blake Ginther, Will Ray, and Josh Dazel are each praiseworthy in supporting roles.
The design of the show is dark, bold, and befitting. Paul Shortt's sets include several pieces such as large revolving panels, moveable staircases, and steel cages that are put to multiple uses. When close to twenty wooden coffins descend from the rafters to represent the cellar of the vampire's home, it is visually stunning. The lighting by student Elizabeth Zernechel is attractive and adds to the dramatic pulse of the musical. The costumes (Dean Mogle) and make-up (Kelly Yurko) are professional and appropriate.
Dracula: The Game of Love at CCM is a well-rendered production of a work that shows much promise. Despite some book problems, the piece has strong merits and is an ambitious and admirable choice for the school's first world premiere musical. The show continues at CCM through March 3, 2002. To order tickets, call (513) 556-4183.