Lots of sound and fury ultimately signifies little in “Dance of the Vampires,” the musical adaptation of Roman Polanski’s 1967 film “The Fearless Vampire Killers.” The $6 million state-funded Viennese venture marks Polanski’s maiden foray onto the musical stage, and he is hardly the first great filmmaker to stumble at the altar of song and dance. But once one exalts the work of a terrific British design team (lighting designer Hugh Vanstone especially), the occasion is a cause mostly for curiosity, not celebration.
While the show should have a solid run in this European capital seemingly starved for such productions, a transfer to more competitive arenas — Broadway or the West End, say — is likely to end up more bitten than the tuner’s tooth-marked victims.
The chief riddle is how any treatment of vampirism can be so bloodless. The metaphoric appeal of the topic goes unexamined in a show that is neither camp (its “Rocky Horror” affinities notwithstanding) nor scarifying.
Jim Steinman’s mock-Wagnerian score pounds insistently away, but its more lyrical, alluring moments are lost amid Steve Margoshes’ thudding orchestrations. By the time a long evening arrives at its awful disco ending, one can only inquire of “Dance of the Vampires,” where is thy sting?
Polanski’s source is his cult film (released in Europe as “Dance of the Vampires”). The Transylvania-set pic is notable for (among other things) the sweet-faced earnestness of the director’s own central performance as the lovesick Alfred (played in the musical by Aris Sas).
But the musical suffers from a grandiosity it cannot yet withstand; it’s hard to attribute epic dimensions to a musical in which the first-act show-stopper is a paean to garlic. Steinman (who also penned the lyrics to Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Whistle Down the Wind”) is not helped by strident, decibel-happy performers like Eva Maria Marold, who, as the maidservant Magda, bellows every number.
Steinman’s imposing, often bombastic music — part requiem, part Wagnerian rock opera — lends a solemnity to “Vampires” that doesn’t square with material that would seem more natural as kitsch. The story closely follows Polanski’s film, overlaid with “The Phantom of the Opera” (actor Steve Barton, the predatory Count Von Krolock, originated the role of Raoul in the Lloyd Webber blockbuster). As with “Phantom,” the scenario involves an older, not-quite-man (the vampiric Count); a younger, innocent (or so she seems) girl-woman (Sarah, played by Cornelia Zenz); and the girl’s ardent suitor (Sas).
Comic relief of a sort is provided by Einstein look-alike Professor Abronsius (Gernot Kranner) and, less fortuitously, the innkeeper Chagal (James Sbano) and his wife, Rebecca (Lenneke Willemsen), who seem to have wandered in from “Fiddler on the Roof.” (Willemsen in particular does a lot of “oy oy oy” acting.)
It’s impossible for a non-German speaker to assess Michael Kunze’s book and lyrics, but a vet Austrian theatergoer said some of the work sounds as if it had been written in English and then translated. (As it turns out, backstage sources later confirmed he was right.) Similarly, Steinman’s score recycles the composer’s 1983 hit “Total Eclipse of the Heart” for the heroine’s big number.
The show’s look, for all its decorative heft, is airy and delicate, and although designer William Dudley offers a cheesy inn early in the show, the second act provides a sequence of ravishing images (a sliding bookcase, a graveyard, a staircase to give even Norma Desmond pause). Vanstone’s silken, spidery lighting employs its own alluring palette, while Sue Blane’s costumes offer up a riot of styles and fabrics (and wigs).
That sense of fun, not to mention eros, is missing elsewhere, as choreographer Dennis Callahan puts the performers through substandard “Fame”-style paces leading up to the let’s-all-dance finale. The fact is, no amount of cast spillage into the auditorium (or a shamelessly protracted curtain call) can manufacture wit and brio. Polanski, so busy breaking down the fourth wall, doesn’t seem to notice that, with “Dance of the Vampires,” he has hit a brick one.