The very idea of an Anne Rice-derived vampire musical scored by Elton John would seem to ensure something lurid, camp, silly. But those qualities, it turns out, are not found in great supply in the Broadway-bound “Lestat” — an achievement in itself, though also cause for some disappointment. The current handsome, respectable entity could, in fact, use a tad more risk-taking excess. Despite subject and talent involved, it’s lacking the memorable high points this watchable, listenable nearly three-hour tuner needs to play as more than a rambling timeline of several high-pulp novels’ picaresque events.
Still, the last time a major musical fantasy did its tryout in San Francisco, it seemed similarly not quite there yet — and things turned out A-OK for “Wicked” despite mixed critical response in Gotham. Whether “Lestat” can repeat that scenario (or the long-run success of John’s prior stage tuners) may well depend on the tweaking done before a planned Broadway launch in March. As one creative staffer was overheard telling friends in the audience on opening night, right now it’s a “good rough cut” in need of fine-tuning.
The biggest problem here is, however, insurmountable: Condensing much of Rice’s “Vampire Chronicle” fictions (mostly “Interview With the Vampire” and “The Vampire Lestat”), tuner “Lestat” has way too much plot to wade through. Titular figure aside, characters come and go without creating involving narrative or emotional arcs. The attempt to arrive at some sort of lesson-learning in an “inspirational” fadeout risks unintentional laughter while repping a poor stab at thematic unification. Too much scrim-scrolled text (the framing device is Lestat writing his history on a laptop), projected “chapter” titles, etc., further emphasize that, in structural terms, this source material is not natural stage fodder.
Yet awareness of that core flaw could be deflected if “Lestat” had more moments of transcendent flamboyance than Robert Jess Roth’s production currently sports. Upping the show’s sexiness (nothing this deliberately homoerotic should be so stingy with male skin), scariness and Grand Guignol grotesquerie would be a good start. Scaling back its “kinder/gentler” take on vampire emotions would be another.
Dullish first scenes have young 18th century French aristo Lestat (Hugh Panaro) urged by mother Gabrielle (Carolee Carmello) to flee his father’s provincial tyranny and create his own destiny. He does, becoming a matinee idol in Paris while violin-playing best friend Nicolas (Roderick Hill) pines in the background — the first of Lestat’s whiny, needy, almost-but-not-quite-blatant male “companions.”
Things liven up when Lestat is chosen as “heir” by a rich vampire who then immolates himself. This sets an unfortunate precedent for our undead hero — still human enough to feel empathy and need love, he’s continually deserted by those who can’t stomach “everlasting youth.”
He converts Nicolas, then mom, then — in the “New World” of 19th century New Orleans — melancholy young widower Louis (Jim Stanek) and foundling Claudia (Allison Fischer). The latter, a “bad seed” enraged by permanent childhood, nearly destroys her maker. But he survives to witness harsh justice meted out to both her and to the vampire Armand (Drew Sarich, who replaced Jack Noseworthy late in the rehearsal process) of whom he’d made an enemy some years before.
Like his prior musical theater (and animated film) scores, John’s latest operates solidly within a contempo idiom without ever equaling the distinctive personality or catchiness of his ’70s work with Bernie Taupin — who here capably replaces Tim Rice as collaborating lyricist. A mainstream pop tenor abruptly emerges in post-intermission opener “Welcome to the New World,” rather too obviously designed as the breakout single. Later solos, notably Claudia’s “I’ll Never Have That Chance” and Lestat’s “Sail Me Away,” are wannabe showstoppers of a too-generic ilk.
Visually, “Lestat” is “crimson-kiss” plush, with Susan Hilferty’s costumes and Kenneth Posner’s lighting especially praiseworthy. The epic sprawl of incidents necessitates a fast-changing set design by Derek McLane that creates some impressively baroque images. More variably successful is the frequent deployment of slide and film projections (presumably the work of “visual concept” designer Dave McKean) that too often resemble videogame graphics or fiery Dianetics commercials.
It’s hard to determine the exact contribution of Matt West for “musical staging,” apart from a couple parodic sequences at the Paris Theater of the Vampires that pleasantly hew closer to conventional “numbers.”
If a vocally impressive cast fails to add needed star magnetism, blame the episodic storyline — not Linda Woolverton’s adequate book, but the cluttered source materials she had to work with. Stanek and Hill are stuck being forever-complaining lovers grousing over their immortal lot. Carmello and Fischer are just OK. Rather less than that is Michael Genet, whose senior vampire Marius gets a great entrance but carries himself with self-defeating pompousness.
Handsome Panaro (a veteran of “The Phantom of the Opera,” whose goth-romantic tone this show clearly emulates) is much more engaging once long-maned Lestat passes the angst torch to his underlings, leaving him free to flash some jaded, bemused wit. Which is something this too-earnest musical could use more of.