Review: ‘Dracula, the Musical’

Should Frank Wildhorn ever decide to retire from turning 18th and 19th century popular literature into popular but forgettable Broadway fare, he'd make a terrific studio executive. He seems to understand that, in commercial terms, the branding and packaging of a product can be even more important than its substance.

Should Frank Wildhorn, composer of such hit musicals as “Jekyll & Hyde” and “The Scarlet Pimpernel,” ever decide to retire from turning 18th and 19th century popular literature into popular but forgettable Broadway fare, he’d make a terrific studio executive. He seems to understand that, in commercial terms, the branding and packaging of a product can be even more important than its substance. His latest work, the potentially Broadway-bound “Dracula, the Musical,” is just that, a pre-sold (can you beat “Dracula” as a brand name?), exceptionally well-packaged commodity that gives in wholly to the idea that theater is less an art than a tourist attraction. As plastic toy musicals go, though, this one’s a highly entertaining one, due especially to a spectacular — or, in the Transylvanian dialect of Count Drraaakula, spektaaakular — set design that transforms as insistently as the Energizer bunny. Audiences won’t exit the theater remembering the melodies, which go in one ear and out the other, but they will leave happily humming the scenery.

Hum away, because Des McAnuff’s visual direction, with John Arnone’s gothic set complemented by Catherine Zuber’s gothic costumes, Howell Binkley’s gothic lighting and the flying effects directed by Paul Rubin represent the true work of imagination here.

The moments that startle don’t really come from the adaptation of the story — until the end a fairly faithful, Reader’s Digest version of Bram Stoker’s tale — but from some stunning stagecraft. The moment that generates the biggest response from the audience happens during a scene transition and not during a scene itself: Dracula steps off the stage into the orchestra pit, and disappears.

This is the type of show that is most entertaining when the performers are disappearing, such as when the coachman in the opening moments flies up into the wings, or when we see Dracula scurrying up the back wall, which at that moment has been turned into a large window.

In Arnone’s beautiful set — he also designed McAnuff’s “The Who’s Tommy” — the back wall is everything. We’ve seen sets using this camera-like irising effect before, but not this elaborately. Here, the wall can expose a window-like square high up stage left, or a long rectangular strip toward the bottom all the way across.

This last effect was the best, with Dracula’s see-through coffin, for no particular reason, sliding by in the background. The wall can iris out completely as well, a cinematic effect, to expose dimensional scene paintings that capture various locales.

The sense of movement here is remarkable, ever-stimulating and nicely distracting from the less interesting goings-on elsewhere onstage.

Wildhorn’s score is serviceable enough, but definitely not inspired, not nearly as haunting or emotional as the visuals, and never, ever surprising. For much of the first act, it all sounds like one big bridge in search of a melody, but for a production always on the move, one big bridge of a score works fine. It gives us a sense of lushness, if not lushness itself.

The book and lyrics are from Don Black and Christopher Hampton, who previously collaborated on “Sunset Boulevard.” They provide generic lyrics that sound a bit like advertising slogans — here’s Dracula seducing Mina into a life of the undead: “We’ll live our lives and then/We’ll live them once again/There’s always a tomorrow.”

There’s no sentiment here that’s not a song title: for loneliness, “One More Lonely Night”; for love, “There Is a Love”; for bravery, “There Are Risks Worth Taking.”

Taken together, the book, lyrics, music and production blend well enough, but behind them lurks a bevy of competing impulses. This show wants to be a pure good vs. evil tale — but also wants something more complex: Dracula as villain and romantic hero simultaneously.

This latter vision comes together at the finale; it’s intriguing even if it is not prepared for properly on an emotional level, despite McAnuff’s every effort to turn this into a serious love story between the vampire and his prey.

There are times, perhaps, when McAnuff takes it all a bit too seriously. There’s a camp element here that Tom Hewitt, Tony-nominated for his turn as Frank ‘N’ Furter in “The Rocky Horror Show,” seems bursting to exploit. But he’s never given the chance — this is a Dracula with a fine accent and a splendid singing voice, and we’re not supposed to laugh at him. The problem is, we never really sympathize with him either, no matter how many love songs he delivers.

We also don’t get much opportunity to laugh at the usual comic relief, the insect-eating Renfield, here played straight, and blandly, by William Youmans.

The humor that gets through is of the cheapest kind, particularly emanating from the three young suitors of Lucy (Amy Rutberg) who pursue Dracula after he transforms the blonde ingenue into a member of the walking dead.

They’re introduced in the one purely comic number, “How Do You Choose?”: There’s the American Quincey Morris (Lee Morgan), the brave one who’s fond of calling all women “little lady”; then there’s the head of the lunatic asylum next door, Dr. Jack Seward (Joe Cassidy), the smart one; and finally there’s Lucy’s future hubby, wealthy Arthur Holmwood (Chris Hoch), the boring one who eventually gets to pound a stake through his beloved’s heart.

Throw in the others, Tom Flynn as vampire hunter Van Helsing, Tom Stuart as Dracula’s bitten lawyer Jonathan Harker, and, most importantly, Jenn Morse as Mina, Harker’s wife and Dracula’s desire, and you have a well-rounded, perfectly capable cast, complemented by the beautiful female vampires who fly in and out or hang on ladders in scanty white clothing.

Maybe between here and New York — rumors say the ultimate landing point will be the Broadway Theater — Wildhorn and company will find a way to give the talent something to help them compete with the set.

Dracula, the Musical

La Jolla Playhouse; 492 seats; $65 top

Production

A La Jolla Playhouse presentation of a musical in two acts with music by Frank Wildhorn and book and lyrics by Don Black and Christopher Hampton, based on the novel by Bram Stoker. Directed by Des McAnuff

Creative

choreography, Mindy Cooper; music direction, Constantine Kitsopoulos; orchestrations, Michael Starobin, Doug Besterman; sets, John Arnone; costumes, Catherine Zuber; lighting, Howell Binkley; sound, Acme Sound Partners; projections, Michael Clark; fight director, Steve Rankin; director of flying effects, Paul Rubin; dramaturg, Shirley Fishman; casting, Dave Clemmons Casting. Opened Oct. 28, 2001, reviewed Oct. 27; closes Nov. 25. Running time: 2 HOURS, 20 MIN.

Cast

Jonathan Harker- Tom Stuart
Dracula - Tom Hewitt
Mina Murray - Jenn Morse
First Vampire - Jodi Stevens
Second Vampire - Jenny-Lynn Suckling
Third Vampire - Emily Kosloski
Renfield - William Youmans
Jack Seward - Joe Cassidy
Lucy Westenra - Amy Rutberg
Quincey Morris - Lee Morgan
Arthur Holmwood - Chris Hoch
Abraham Van Helsing - Tom Flynn
Child - Michael Cullen/Angelo Scolari
With: Margaret-Ann Gates, Guy LeMonnier, Lynnette Marrerro, Tracy Miller, Sara Tobin.

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