A crippling case of anemia is the last thing you’d expect from a musical about literature’s most celebrated vampire. But so it is with Broadway’s bloodless “Dracula,” which frantically rattles the old bones of Bram Stoker’s novel without generating a moment of suspense, horror, romance or even vague interest.
With the aimlessly churning pop music of Frank Wildhorn underscoring Don Black’s typically banal lyrics and lumbering book, the musical plods doggedly through the creaky tale of ancient evil despoiling Victorian innocence.
As if to compensate for the lethargy of the story’s treatment, director Des McAnuff and set designer Heidi Ettinger fill the stage with oodles of whiz-bang mechanical effects — a trio of airborne, scantily clad female vampires, glass coffins that drip blood (well, Hawaiian Punch, anyway), trap doors and big, spooky statuary. Ol’ Count D. is whisked aloft so regularly, Tom Hewitt should be collecting frequent flyer miles.
McAnuff clearly is working from the conviction that if the stage were to be free of moving parts for even a moment, the audience would instantaneously lapse into a collective slumber. He happens to be right. But the director, best known for his snazzy retread of “The Who’s Tommy,” here presents the pointless workings of a pinball machine without a pinball. By the time a few bodices finally begin ripping, in desperation, stupor has long since set in.
“Dracula” is, strange to say, Broadway’s second trip to Transylvania in recent years. Two seasons back, “The Phantom of the Opera” star Michael Crawford slapped on the fangs in “Dance of the Vampires,” which boasted its own power-pop score by Jim Steinman. Staggeringly silly as it was, that musical at least earned some affection for its exuberant vulgarity and shrugging awareness of its own absurdity. It generated a few healthy titters, even a guffaw or two.
It’s hard to muster the energy for even a sidelong snicker at “Dracula,” which soberly eschews any temptations to campy indulgence and insists, in vain, on the dramatic viability of its hoariest cliches. The model here is clearly Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Phantom,” with the demonic, entirely nasty Dracula of Stoker’s novel given the usual makeover, transforming him into a blood-feasting king of the undead who’s kinda hot, too. Misunderstood, maybe. And sensitive? For sure.
Even as this traditional departure saps a measure of urgency from the good-vs.-evil story, Black’s book sticks with gummy insistence to the complicated workings of Stoker’s novel. Early scenes in Romania find earnest young lawyer Jonathan Harker (Darren Ritchie) exchanging nervous pleasantries with his mysterious client. Hewitt, as the count, is initially got up like Gary Oldman in the 1992 Francis Ford Coppola movie, in wizened makeup, ornate locks and ruffled brocade (Catherine Zuber’s lush costumes are at least pleasing).
When Harker’s host gets a gander at a photo of Harker’s comely young fiancee, Mina (Melissa Errico), he hightails it to England, shedding a century of wrinkles along the way, Botox being superfluous when your diet is fresh blood.
In Blighty, Dracula warms up with an amuse-bouche in the form of Kelli O’Hara’s Lucy Westenra. This milky young beauty sings merrily of her three suitors: a cartoonish Yankee, Quincey Morris (Bart Shatto); Dr. Jack Seward (Shonn Wiley), proprietor of one of England’s finest lunatic asylums; and the proper aristo Arthur Holmwood (Chris Hoch). Still, she ends up making time with the seductive count, singing of “the fear and the desire, I was on fire, the ground moved as we kissed,” a typical example of Black’s knack for lyrical invention.
After nearly an hour of eerie sound effects, chipper dialogue recalling Regency romance novels and regular doses of Wildhorn’s blandly emotive music, a true note of horror is finally struck when one realizes that Van Helsing, Dracula’s famed foe, has not yet made an appearance.
But even when he does, in the surprising person of Stephen McKinley Henderson, best known for his fine work in August Wilson plays, things do not exactly jump to a fast track. Van Helsing, the doomed Lucy’s defenders and the now-traumatized Harker manfully marshal the usual resources to battle the beast, trudging down Transylvania-way — with a layover in Budapest, was it?
Meanwhile, Mina, like Lucy, shows a marked ambivalence to her tormentor: She pays lip service to her love for Jonathan and all things holy while lapsing regularly into anthems in which she avows her attraction to the dark side: “Why do we risk all we have? Why give in to the lure that calls from everything forbidden? What attracts us to the night? And captures us however hard we fight?”
A more pressing question: How does a vocally gifted, entrancingly pretty young actress develop a knack for entombing herself in Broadway bombs?
Errico, previously trapped in high-profile duds “High Society” and “Amour,” performs with a conviction that would be inspiring if it were not somehow dispiriting. Her acting is sincere, her singing plush and note-perfect, but the surging histrionics of Wildhorn’s songs do not flatter her voice. As ballad after ballad rises to a mechanical climax, even Errico’s burnished soprano begins to grate, and the pulse-racing responses Wildhorn so resolutely — and repeatedly — aims for fail to materialize.
The evening’s ostensible star fares worst of all. Hewitt, a brassy, burly Frank N. Furter in Broadway’s recent revival of “The Rocky Horror Show,” is given little scope either to scare us or seduce us. Dracula spends more time straddling various mechanical contraptions than either of the two leading ladies. Whizzing above the stage, dangling upside-down, bopping back and forth on rollers, poor Hewitt comes to resemble a human screen-saver, endlessly zipping about the stage without settling down long enough to make a distinct impression.
The musical, in any case, is beyond saving. Raising neither smiles nor shudders, this turgid retread of Stoker’s sanguinary tale of sin, sex and salvation merely gives rise to the dire reflection that eternal damnation seems a benign fate when measured against the prospect of a lifetime of Frank Wildhorn musicals.