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San Francisco by Richard Connema

An Incoherent Production of Lestat
Comes to San Francisco

Lestat
Carolee Carmello and Hugh Panaro
Warner Brothers enters the world of live theatre with Linda Woolverton, Elton John and Bernie Taupin's musical Lestat. They have taken on the gargantuan task of adapting Anne Rice's "Vampire Chronicles" into a closely knit musical. Too many of Ms. Rice's characters are crammed into an over long first act (the musical is now running an exhausting 2 hours and 45 minutes), which needs a tremendous amount of rewriting. The second act follows more closely the film Interview with a Vampire and is more concise and put together. Also, the score in the second act changes dramatically and sounds more like Elton John's music. The first act consists mostly of four-chord ballads on the order of a Frank Wildhorn musical.

Act one of Lestat reminds me of those old Universal horror films, as if we might see Bela Lugosi lurking in the wings. Ms. Woolverton introduces such major characters as Nicolas (Roderick Hill), Lestat's bosom buddy; the villainous Armand (Drew Sarich), who is the leader of an international clandestine society of vampires who usually meet in churchyards; and the elusive Marius (Michael Genet), described as King of the Vampires. Hugh Panaro plays Lestat as if he is playing Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights in these first act scenes. He sings well with his big, powerhouse voice but those four-chord melodies do not give him much range. Carolee Carmello, who is first the mother of Lestat and then after a bite on the neck by her son becomes Gabrielle, shines with a resonant voice in "Nothing Here," "Make Me as You Are," and "The Crimson Kiss". What a pity she disappears after the first act.

Set Designer Derek McLane and projection coordinator Howard Werner have designed some very special video effects, especially the battle of the wolves at the beginning of the musical. The psychedelic effects by the projections are excellent when Lestat is getting his kicks sucking blood from his victims. They are reminscent of those early Peter Fonda movies when he was high on hallucinatory drugs.

Lestat's second act is more concise, and the music and scenes blend well together. This part of Elton John's score has more of a rock beat that identifies with the composer. John's work here is superior to his score for Aida. Bernie Taupin's lyrics are not outstanding but they do unify the flow of the second act. This act could almost stand on its own merits if extended in length. The opening scene of Lestat in New Orleans in late 1791 is beautifully accomplished with "citizens" of the southern city arising from the center of the stage dressed like gothic marble statues of black and gray singing "Welcome to the New World," an inspiring song sung well by Panaro and the citizens.

Lestat is searching for companionship in this time of solitude and catches the eye of the desolate Louis de Pointe du Lac (Jim Stanek) in a bar. Lestat takes a passionate liking to the handsome young man, promising him eternal life; there is a strong element of homoeroticism in the way he bites the neck of Louis. We now have a real "lifetime companion situation." Thirteen-year-old Claudia (Allison Fischer) comes onto the scene and soon she becomes the youngest blood sucker in vampire history. She also has trouble keeping home instructors since she prefers the blood of the intelligentsia.

Thirty years pass and poor Claudia still looks like a thirteen-year-old child. She is unhappy with her appearance and wants to be a woman. Her song "I Want More" (meaning "more to life") could have been camp, but is deadly serious within the context of the scene. Allison Fischer sings her heart out with this song. Of course things turn out rather badly for this family as Claudia tries to do away with Lestat by burning him to death - but you can't kill our hero so easily.

Lestat returns to Paris to recuperate and we see a camp version of Dracula being played by our hero's vampire friends. Claudia has become a member of the cast, and the group finds out that this poor girl tried to kill Lestat, which is forbidden the laws of vampirism. What follows is a scene straight out of the end of Joan of Arc, with a cheap projection of flames enveloping her to ashes. The last scene probably will not make sense to those who do not know Anne Rice's novel "Queen of the Damned": Lestat is seen climbing up the steps slowly to Queen Akaska, Queen of the Damned and mother of all vampires, sitting on a phantasmagorical Egyptian throne looking like Queen Nefertiti. It looks like the old boy will live to see the 20th century.

Although the best songs in Lestat are sung by the women, Hugh Panaro gets a chance to show off his powerful vocal chops with "Sail Me Away." He gives his character some depth in the second act, even as he celebrates and enjoys his eternal existance with a gratuitous disrespect for life. Jim Stanek has a strong voice as the weak-willed Louis who despises this eternal life. Drew Sarich, who recently took over the role of Armand, is exceptional as a person with no heart or emotion. He has a clear, bell-tone voice in several of the numbers. Roderick Hill as Nicolas has very little to do in the first act but act like he is in coma after he receives his first bite from Lestat. Michael Genet has a commanding voice in his brief appearances as Marius.

Derek McLain's set design is excellent, using a lot of interesting moving projections that work well with the scenes. The apartment of Lestat, Louis and Claudia in the second act looks like a leftover scene from Aida as it is done in an Egyptian style. Most of the finely detailed props are wheeled in and out. The costumes by Susan Hilferty are intriguing, and lighting by Kenneth Posner is superb - they create the right atmosphere for many of the scenes. Robert Jess Roth's direction is in the first act is too jarring and confusing to make sense to those new to the story, while he gets things together to run a rather smooth second act.

Lestat has a good chance to be a moderately successful musical if the first act can be made coherent to the theatregoing audience. The show will be moving to the Palace Theatre in New York in the spring and undoubtedly the producers will make more changes before it opens to the New York.

Lestat plays at the Curran Theatre, Geary Street, San Francisco through January 29th. For tickets please call 415-551-2050 or visit www.shnsf.com. Best of Broadway's next production will be the old reliable Cats, set to open at the Orpheum on February 22nd, running through March 5th.


Photo: Paul Kolnik


Cheers - and be sure to Check the lineup of great shows this season in the San Francisco area

- Richard Connema



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