'Rudolf'

Three weeks after Frank Wildhorn's egregiously overwrought tuner "Rudolf" limped onto the stage of Vienna's Raimund Theater, the German-language premiere of "Spring Awakening" opened across town at the Ronacher. The triumph of theTony winner will hopefully send a strong message: the Austro-musical is dead and it's time to bury it.

Three weeks after history buff Frank Wildhorn’s egregiously overwrought tuner “Rudolf” limped onto the stage of Vienna’s Raimund Theater, the German-language premiere of “Spring Awakening” opened across town at the Ronacher. The triumph of Duncan Sheik and Steven Sater’s Tony winner will hopefully send a strong message: the Austro-musical is dead and it’s time to bury it.

Year after year since “Elisabeth,” the highest-grossing German-language tuner of all time, opened in the early 1990s and toured throughout the Eastern Hemisphere for more than a decade, Austrians have annually dealt with the likes of “Dance of the Vampires,” “Mozart!,” “Wake Up,” “Barbarella” and “Rebecca,” shows which may have found broader success a few decades ago in the heyday of their inspiration — “Les Miserables” and the complete works of Andrew Lloyd Webber — but now seem mediocre imitations at best.

Wildhorn, composer of “Jekyll & Hyde,” “The Scarlet Pimpernel” and “Dracula, the Musical,” has had more success in Central Europe than on Broadway; here he delivers another quasi-operatic historical epic. More painful than his undistinguished score are the banal lyrics and endlessly talky book by Jack Murphy.

In the early 20th century, the final years of the soon-to-perish Austro-Hungarian Empire, Rudolf (Drew Sarich), the last heir to the throne, is forced into a mutually hateful marriage with crown princess Stephanie (shrill-voiced Wietske van Tongeren). When he falls instead for Baroness Mary Vetsera (Lisa Antoni), their affair becomes the scandal of Vienna.

The show’s greatest flaw is that it’s dominated not by the classic ingredients of great musicals — love, family or cultural conflicts, history — but rather abstruse politics which, through the machinations of Prime Minister Eduard Taaffe (Uwe Kroger) distances Rudolf from his father, the frail, old Emperor Franz Joseph (Claus Dam).

Family and friends — particularly Mary’s chum Countess Larisch (Carin Filipcic) — offer varying advice, but the weak-minded Rudolf can think of nothing better than to form a suicide pact with Mary, to be carried out at the royal hunting lodge at Mayerling.

Officially, the causes of the deaths remain unsolved, but here a pat ending is tacked on. Had the show ended a minute earlier, history would have been preserved and audiences given something to think about. Instead, we are asked to swallow what Wildhorn and mythology have dictated, despite numerous other possibilities.

Set at the beginning of the 20th century, the music can’t decide whether it wants to be “The Merry Widow” or “Cats.” There’s not one memorable song in the entire show, which is not helped by the fact Rudolf is an unattractive wimp and Mary an opportunist. In their favor, Sarich (“Lestat”), Antoni and Filipcic do at least give committed performances.

Directed by West End and Broadway regular David Leveaux and designed by Mike Britton, the production, set in a white box, is insultingly cheap. Lighting designer Patrick Woodroffe seems to have two gels: one red, one blue, so intense as to cause headaches. There’s a curved wrought-iron staircase that rises and falls, and nothing else. And Hendrik Maassen’s sound design is so deafening people were seen sticking fingers in their ears.

Rudolf

Raimund Theater, Vienna; 1,170 Seats; E120 $152 Top

Production

A Vereinigte Buhnen Wien presentation of a musical in two acts with music by Frank Wildhorn, book and lyrics by Jack Murphy, additional lyrics by Nan Knighton, based on a story by Wildhorn and Phoebe Hwang, concept by Wildhorn and Steve Cuden. Directed by David Leveaux. Music direction, Caspar Richter. Choreography, John O'Connell.

Creative

Sets, Mike Britton; costumes, Laura Hopkins; lighting, Patrick Woodroffe; sound, Hendrik Maassen; orchestrations, Kim Scharnberg. Opened, reviewed Feb. 26, 2009. Running time: 3 HOURS.

Cast

Crown Prince Rudolf - Drew Sarich Baroness Mary Vetsera - Lisa Antoni Count Eduard Taaffe - Uwe Kroger Kaiser Franz Joseph - Claus Dam Countess Marie Larisch - Karin Filipcic Crown Princess Stephanie - Wietske van Tongeren
With: Kai Peterson, Dennis Kozeluh, Robert D. Marx, Sasha Dicapri, Manuel Stoff, Martin Pasching, Markus Neugebauer, Jan Hutter, Kathleen Bauer, Silke Braas, Anja Geldern, Alexandra Farkic, Claudia Wauschke, Matilda Hansson, Leigh Martha Klinger, Niklas-Philipp Gertl, Adrienn Krekacs, Rory Six, Tineke Ogink, Niran Straub. Musical numbers: "Curtain Up," "Viennese Specialties," "An Ordinary Man," "The Men Who We've Become," "Viennese Specialties" (reprise), "Pretty Little War," "Mary's Theme," "The Ball, "The Prince of Wales Waltz," "Mary's Theme" (reprise), "The Ball" (reprise), "Something More," "Blue Skies," "Finish What You Started," "How Will I Know?," "Tralala -- Ice Skating Song," "The Moment I Saw You," "Only Love," "The Master of the Strings," "It Will Be Me," "An Ordinary Man" (reprise), "Viennese Specialties" (reprise), "New Boy In Town," "Measure of a Man," "The Steps of Tomorrow," "Only Heroes Dare," "The Bird Dog," "The Writing's On The Wall," "Can I Say Goodbye?," "Finish What You Started" (reprise), "Maintain the State," "I Was Born to Love You," "Only Love" (reprise).
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