Can a vampire have an identity crisis? Perhaps we should leave that question to Anne Rice. But it’s clear enough, on the evidence of “Dance of the Vampires,” that a musical certainly can. This odd, expensive enterprise wants to be a light-hearted spoof of the hoary conventions of horror stories, and at the same time a churning Gothic musical extravaganza, a “Phantom of the Opera” with fangs. But you can’t really be a standup comic and a blood-feasting member of the evil tribes of the undead, can you?
The “Phantom” comparison is made inescapable by the presence in the central role of Michael Crawford, returning to Broadway for the first time since he created the title role in that Andrew Lloyd Webber musical. Once again he is playing a ghoul with powerful vocal cords. But “Dance of the Vampires” is a far more dubious vehicle than “Phantom.” Once the star’s many fans have had their fill of his crooning, the musical will be left in B.O. limbo: It’s not an outright comedy that would satisfy those who can’t wait for Mel Brooks to get around to staging “Young Frankenstein,” but as a serious musical — well, it’s pretty damn funny.
Loosely based on the Roman Polanski picture “The Fearless Vampire Killers” and originally staged in Vienna by Polanski himself, it features a score by Jim Steinman, best known for writing the Meat Loaf album “Bat Out of Hell” and its sequel. Anyone who got near a radio sometime in the early ’80s probably also will recall his monster hit (forgive the pun) “Total Eclipse of the Heart.”
If not, there are plenty of chances to hear it in “Dance of the Vampires,” since strains from the song seem to recur every few minutes — rising from the dead, as it were, just when you thought you’d heard the last reprise.
But the audience’s reaction to hearing a snatch of the melody in the musical’s opening minutes — laughter — illustrates the problem facing the men hired to help translate the musical from the original language (German) to the new one (contemporary Broadway), book writer David Ives and director John Rando (“Urinetown”). How do you create the kind of ironic musical comedy now in fashion to support the bombastic balladry Steinman specializes in? The short answer is, you don’t, but Ives and Rando gamely pretend to be unaware of this. For a while, they show us a silly good time by ignoring the elephant in the room that is the score.
The musical opens with our dewy young heroine Sarah (Mandy Gonzalez) collecting mushrooms in the woods, outside the town of Lower Belabartokovich. She brushes aside her girlfriends’ anxieties — “What’s there to fear in a gloomy forest in deepest Transylvania three nights before Halloween?” — but soon the girls are in the midst of what is described in the script, aptly, as a “vampire rave” (I bet even Ms. Rice didn’t know there was such a thing).
This event consists of a horde of skilled dancers in gray body paint and tattered shreds of Lycra darting across the stage executing John Carrafa’s athletic choreography, an indescribable mixture of ballet, Broadway, MTV and “Solid Gold.” It’s pure camp, and intended as such. I think.
Enter, via a coffin that shoots up from the stage, Crawford’s Count Giovanni von Krolock, speaking in an accent as indeterminately European as his name. (Romanian by way of a Brooklyn pizzeria?) “God has left the building!” he announces, and the brio with which Crawford embraces the sillier aspects of his role is endearing.
He seems happy to poke fun at his celebrated turn in “Phantom,” which is alluded to, humorously and otherwise, more than once in the staging. And while his distinctive voice is largely in service to music that’s similar in spirit, if not in specific language, to Lloyd Webber’s, he gets to display his talent as a comic actor here; the timing’s choice.
The musical continues in a likably shticky spirit for much of the first act, as we meet the local peasantry — clad in costumes by Ann Hould-Ward that fairly scream Mitteleurope — who give a cool welcome to “international vampiricist” Abronsius of Heidelberg, played with satiric flair by Rene Auberjonois. Heidelberg’s “faithful factotum” Albert, a hunk in skin-tight breeches (amiably played and expertly sung by Max Von Essen), is Von Krolock’s romantic rival for the heart of the fair Sarah.
Eventually, Albert and Abronsius head up to Von Krolock’s castle to rescue the fair damsel from the Von Krolock clutches. The girl has been bewitched away by the king of the undead (“This is a special one-time offer!” he says, by way of persuasion) for a night in which she will be initiated into the unholy rites, a sort of debutante ball for blood-suckers.
Unfortunately, at Von Krolock’s castle, the battle for Sarah’s soul is sidetracked by an ancillary contest between good and evil: the tug of war between the show’s dueling aesthetics. The goofy spoofing that continues erratically throughout the second act wrestles with the pompous, romantic power-pop represented by Steinman’s score. Evil, as is often the case, carries the day, which is to say the fun ebbs away under an onslaught of thundering, portentous musical numbers.
The fabulously energetic corps of vampires, proving there are aerobics and possibly even more unpleasant forms of exercise after death, stage a big fright ballet, singing spooky things in Latin (“Dies Irae, kyrie, libera me, domine!”) and spookier things in English (“You’ve got to curse the day/It’s nothing but a merciless light/So open up your arms/And then you get down on your knees/You suck in all the darkness/And you’re ready now to seize the night”).
Alfred wails out his love for Sarah, singing of his willingness to “go to the grave like a sacrificial angel” — whatever that is — while Gonzalez herself gamely tries to out-Celine Dion Celine Dion, pummeling us with her admittedly impressive pipes on a couple more choruses of “Total Eclipse.”
Crawford, meanwhile, prowls around David Gallo’s series of lavish but cheesy Gothic sets — heavy on dripping candles, skulls, spider imagery and hydraulics — revealing Von Krolock’s tormented soul in his big solo number, “Confessions of a Vampire,” in which Steinman stakes a claim to social commentary with the climactic peroration: “There’s a prediction that I now will make/And I’m sure I will be right/When the next millennium finally comes/The God most worshipped in this world/Will be the God of appetite.”
The intentional silliness continues intermittently — for example, the seduction scene staged by Von Krolock’s flaming queen son, who’s set his cap for Alfred (“When Love Is Inside You,” it’s tastefully called) — but it is gradually swamped by the unintentional kind, exemplified by the second chorus number, “Eternity,” in which a horde of blood-suckers clamber out of their graves, boogie around like the gang in Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” video and sing indefensible lyrics like, “We’ve got style/We’ve got class/But we’re stuck in the morass/Of eternity.” Tell me about it!
There’s a prediction that I now will make, too, and I’m sure I will be right: Michael Crawford will live to rue the day he chose this ludicrous musical as the vehicle for his Broadway return. He’ll cringe at the mortifying makeup job, which makes him look like a drag queen whose vanity mirror could use a few more lightbulbs, and the pseudo-mullet wig, scarier than any of the show’s other special effects. Even now, he must know his expressive, reedy singing voice deserves more distinguished material.
Of course, for now at least, Crawford can cringe all the way to the bank: On the strength of his massive “Phantom” following, the musical is doing strong business. Critical ridicule might dampen B.O. a bit, but the show will probably last out the season — maybe longer. After all, the original production opened in Vienna in October 1997, and some five years later it is still on tour.
Presumably it all sounds better in German.