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Broadway Reviews


Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - August 19, 2004

Dracula Music by Frank Wildhorn. Book and lyrics by Don Black and Christopher Hampton. Directed by Des McAnuff. Choreography by Mindy Cooper. Scenic design by Heidi Ettinger. Costume design by Catherine Zuber. Lighting design by Howell Binkley. Sound design by Acme Sound Partners. Aerial staging by Rob Besserer. Flying by Foy. Orchestrations by Doug Besterman. Musical direction by Constantine Kitsopoulos. Cast: Tom Hewitt, Melissa Errico, Don Stephenson, Darren Ritchie, Kelli O'Hara, Chris Hoch, Bart Shatto, Shonn Wiley, Stephen McKinley Henderson, Celina Carvajal, Melissa Fagan, Jenifer Foote, Anthony Holds, Pamela Jordan, Elizabeth Loyocano, Tracy Miller, Graham Rowat, Megan Sikora, Chuck Wagner.
Theatre: Belasco Theatre, 111 West 44th Street between Broadway and 6th Avenue
Running time: 2 hours 10 minutes, with one 15 minute intermission.
Schedule: Tuesday through Saturday at 8 PM, Wednesday and Saturday at 2 PM, Sunday at 3 PM. Beginning September 6: Tuesday at 7 PM, Wednesday through Saturday at 8 PM, Wednesday and Saturday at 2 PM, Sunday at 3 PM.
Ticket prices: Orchestra and Mezzanine $101.25, Balcony: $51.25 and $36.25
Tickets: Telecharge

Most of the possible jokes about vampire musicals were expended at Dance of the Vampires, the camp flop that graced (disgraced?) the 2002-2003 season. Now that Dracula, the Musical, an adaptation of Bram Stoker's classic novel with music by Frank Wildhorn, has arrived on Broadway, is it time to apply the same wisecracks all over again? Sadly, no. What's now onstage at the Belasco is no laughing matter.

Instead, Dracula ranks as one of the saddest and most dispiriting Broadway shows in years. It's the type of empty, meaningless venture that only depresses and discourages those who believe musicals can communicate the full range of human emotions; Dracula inspires one response and one response only: apathy. This is not a show intended for anyone believing a musical can commit no greater sin than to be completely uninteresting and uninvolving from its first moment to its last.

Those familiar with the original novel will no doubt find this puzzling, as it's never at all boring. Stoker possessed a fine ability to generate and sustain tension on almost every page, using little more than a series of journal entries and letters. In adapting Stoker for their book and lyrics for this show, Don Black and Christopher Hampton have dispensed with not only the epistolary format, but most of the period flavor and wealth of detail Stoker provided. They tell the story in such a casual way that copies of Stoker's book really should be distributed with every Playbill.

In brief, the story finds the Transylvanian Count Dracula engaging the services of English solicitor Jonathan Harker, sidelining him, and then stowing aboard a ship to England. There he terrorizes Harker's fiancée Mina and her friend Lucy; Lucy falls prey to his hypnotic charms, but she's correctly diagnosed by doctor Abraham Van Helsing, who then leads Mina, the now-returned Jonathan, Lucy's new husband Arthur, and her two other suitors in an attempt to stop Dracula before he takes over Mina's heart and soul.

Despite all this, there's never a moment of suspense, let alone surprise or horror. Hampton and Black hit every major plot point in a reckless case of drive-by dramaturgy, but do it at the expense of the characters. We barely meet Lucy before her death-defying transformation from living to undead, and Dracula, Mina, and Jonathan are so sketchily defined that their love triangle never feels remotely pointed. Unsurprisingly, the show's ending is an unmoving, confusing mess; Black and Hampton don't know how to end the story because they don't know what the story is or who the characters are.

As frequently happens in Wildhorn-composed shows, the songs here have but token connection to the action. At least, that is, when they're intelligible: The sound design (by Acme Sound Partners) obscures at least a third of the lyrics, and what can be understood is often undistinguished musically and lyrically. Few true theatre scores can profit from a six-piece band with three synthesizers; here such a band seems sadly at home. (Constantine Kitsopoulos is the musical director; the pop-opera orchestrations are by Doug Besterman.)

The vampire hunters' anthem, "Deep in the Darkest Night," may as well be "Into the Fire" from The Scarlet Pimpernel; Mina has three interchangeable ballads in "A Perfect Life," "The Heart is Slow to Learn," and "If I Could Fly," the latter accompanied by exaggerated avian arm gestures; and her big duet with Dracula, "There's Always Tomorrow," sounds (and is staged) like something from Andrew Lloyd Webber's The Phantom of the Opera. More earnest attempts at plot numbers result in "How Do You Choose?" for Lucy and her suitors, presenting four characters without developing them, and "Modern World," a prosaic look at changing technological trends at the end of the 19th century.

Ideas like these are never explored - director Des McAnuff is too concerned simply getting the show to move; it does, if lumberingly. Aerial stager Rob Besserer and Flying by Foy create some eye-popping (and extraneous) stunts for Dracula and three vampire minions, Mindy Cooper provides some nominal choreography, and Heidi Ettinger's almost-attractive Victorian sets - incorporating a vast collection of door frames, iris panels, and projections (by Michael Clark) - are in nearly continuous motion throughout the evening. (One can't help but wish McAnuff had done more to delineate his characters than demonstrate that the undead know how to wear flight harnesses and can always find the stage's treadmills.) Additional spectacle provided by Catherine Zuber's costumes and Howell Binkley lights can't replace the show's missing heart.

Nor can the performers, though Stephen McKinley Henderson works devilishly hard as Van Helsing, and Don Stephenson brings some momentary creepiness to the Dracula-infected, spider-eating madman Renfield. Darren Ritchie (as Jonathan) and Shonn Wiley, Bart Shatto, and Chris Hoch as Lucy's suitors are all more or less indistinguishable.

As for the stars, Tom Hewitt (Dracula), Melissa Errico (Mina), and Kelli O'Hara (Lucy) prove here not at all memorable, and never find a way to reveal any of the star quality they've demonstrated in other musicals. Is this stuffy, cardboard Errico really the same one who radiated such warmth in Amour two years ago, or just last season in Finian's Rainbow? What happened to the gleeful relish Hewitt brought to Frank 'N' Furter in The Rocky Horror Show? And where's the utterly ravishing voice O'Hara has used in every show until this one? These three prove Dracula's most unwitting victims; they're given enough stage time to launch them into the upper strata of Broadway stardom, but they go nowhere.

Is it their fault for not being able to transcend less-than-stellar material? Perhaps, but why were they allowed the opportunity to remain so blandly earthbound? Wildhorn may not know better, but his music isn't the show's biggest problem: Why did McAnuff, Black, and Hampton, all of whom have done some fine work in the past, settle for material this unworkable, this unplayable? And why did they take Errico, Hewitt, and O'Hara down with them? Jekyll and Hyde and The Scarlet Pimpernel at least presented Robert Cuccioli and Douglas Sills with legitimate star roles. Aside from brief moments of nudity for O'Hara and Errico, what does Dracula give its leads?

For that matter, what does it give its audiences? That answer is all too easy: nothing. Nothing to be impressed by, nothing to be moved by, nothing even worth mocking in the time-honored tradition of Carrie or Dance of the Vampires. Dracula is the kind of soulless, disposable mediocrity that doesn't so much suck the life blood from its audiences and the show business that spawned it as suggest there was little life in those things to begin with.

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