Lestat Based on "The Vampire Chronicles" by Anne Rice. Music by Elton John. Lyrics by Bernie Taupin. Book by Linda Woolverton. Directed by Robert Jess Roth. Musical Staging by Matt West. Set design by Derek McLane. Costume design by Susan Hilferty. Lighting design by Kenneth Posner. Sound design by Jonathan Deans. Visual concept design by Dave McKean. Wig & hair design by Tom Watson. Make-up design by Angelina Avallone. Fight Director Rick Sordelet. Projections Coordinator Howard Wener. Musical Supervisor Guy Babylon. Orchestrations by Steve Margoshes & Guy Babylon. Additional orchestrations by Bruce Coughlin. Starring Hugh Panaro, Carolee Carmello, Drew Sarich, Jim Stanek, Roderick Hill, Michael Genet, Allison Fischer. Featuring Rachel Coloff, Nikki Renee Daniels, Joseph Dellger, Colleen Fitzpatrick, Sean MacLaughlin, Patrick Mellen, Chris Peluso, Dominique Plaisant, Megan Reinking, Sarah Solie, Amy Sparrow, Will Swenson, Steve Wilson, Tommar Wilson.
Let us only pray that the "three strikes and you're out" rule, applicable in baseball and in some states' law enforcement practices, also applies to musical theatre genres. That would mean that the woeful Lestat, which just opened at the Palace, is truly the silver nail in the coffin of vampire musicals that it deserves to be.
The first, Dance of the Vampires, arrived in 2002, in its sheer audacious idiocy all but openly campaigning to be the next Carrie. In 2004, Broadway briefly succumbed to Frank Wildhorn's Dracula, an hilariously abortive attempt to cash in on the Bram Stoker classic.
But without the former's excess or the latter's inexhaustible energy (tapped by director Des McAnuff, now working similar magic on the superior Jersey Boys), Lestat is the least distinctive entry yet. Without so much as interesting visuals, let alone compelling writing, Lestat is a slap in the face not just to regular theatregoers but to the built-in audience that should be the show's birthright.
It's based on Anne Rice's Vampire Chronicles books, which immortalized the musical's title character in Interview with the Vampire and The Vampire Lestat. And it has a score by pop icons Elton John (music) and Bernie Taupin (lyrics), who have cultivated a considerable fan base of their own over the last few decades. Given the material's mainstream recognition - a 1994 film starred Tom Cruise as the nebulously nefarious nightdweller - and a stage musical was just a matter of time.
Now it's finally here, with a horror of a book by Linda Woolverton and in a raging howler of a production helmed by Robert Jess Roth. Forget any questions of vampire morality the material might try to raise: Immortality, their having it and our lacking it, is the key issue. Specifically, Lestat is a walloping reminder that life is far too short to sit through illiterate garbage passing itself off as Art at sky-high ticket prices.
Not that this will matter for its target audience of theatre neophytes, which kept John's Aida running at the Palace for over four years. And if all they're interested in is power singing and hot performers, they'll get both here, which has as its sole asset a solid cast led by Hugh Panaro and Carolee Carmello. (Carmello and her belt of steel, by the way, are the only reasons any theatre lover under the age of 475 should consider seeing the show.)
Panaro is Lestat, who develops his taste for blood after killing a pack of wolves and being disowned by his father because of it. (This is the first of many plot points that should not be pondered much.) After being unwillingly initiated into the vampire afterlifestyle, Lestat bestows the "gift" on his decrepit mother, Gabrielle (Carmello), before spending most of his days (and all of the show) ruining relationships on two continents.
And though few kisses are exchanged, the creamy looks and declarations of love identify Lestat and his ilk as the first significant campaigners for gay rights. Lestat's gambit to turn his hopelessly pure longtime friend Nicolas (Roderick Hill) has horrifying results in France, where the story begins. Later, in New Orleans, a distraught widower (Jim Stanek) falls under Lestat's spell and lives with him for several decades; they become co-fathers to a young orphan (Allison Fischer) Lestat vampirizes and takes in. They suffer plenty along the way, chafing against the drudgery of living forever and the meddling of Lestat's enemy Armand (Drew Sarich), who wants vampires kept securely closeted.
This plot, though, is barely discernible through the lyrics, among the feeblest ever written for a Broadway musical (and, yes, I'm familiar with Whoop-Up). What might pass in contemporary pop music clunks onstage, and every song is awash in false rhymes (the dozens of examples include pairings of boy/employed, swoon/tomb, and release/priest) and platitudes ("Your presence here," sings Armand at one point, "is poison in our veins").
John's tunes are considerably better, with less synthetic musicality than those other vampire shows could manage. (Musical director Brad Haak presides over an 18-piece band with but three keyboards.) While rotten theatre music, never soaring or evoking time, place, or character, as flavorless pop from the King of Flavorless Pop, and as sung by fine singers like Sarich, Stanek, Fischer, they're easy on the ear.
Only Carmello makes them easy on the heart, as well. Her brassy vocals and go-for-broke attitude almost make believable Gabrielle's transformation from ailing woman to vibrant creature of the night, and her performances of her songs, lyrically negligible and limited to the predictable and repetitive ("Make Me As You Are") and the searingly silly ("The Crimson Kiss"), are the only ones that ring with the honesty a true pro can inject even into the most wanting material.
Panaro's voice is equally sturdy, his manner gutsier. But he's dwarfed by his surroundings, frequently lost amid random plot developments and Derek McLane's opulently ugly, haphazardly lumbering scenery. Worse, he has merely an ephemeral gasp of who or why Lestat is: Before his transformation or after it, at the height of joy or the depth of despair, Panaro wanders about the stage with a bemused look suggesting even he can barely follow what's happening.
At least in that way you can relate to him. Roth and Woolverton have ensured that making any sense of the story is impossible for anyone who hasn't memorized Rice: Characters appear and disappear for the vaguest of reasons (Carmello vanishes for one particularly interminable hour), transitions between locales and time periods are functionally nonexistent, and one especially baffling exposition number is a diegetic example of vampire performance art.
Seeing that song, "Morality Play," just once is bewildering enough; one can't help but wish Lestat's creators had spared the cast, who must cope with it and everything else eight times a week. Every performance must be just as eternal onstage as it is in the house.