Die young. Live forever. At least half that tagline likely will prove prescient in describing the fate of “Lestat” on Broadway. Warner Bros. deserves some respect for remaining committed to fixing a beleaguered project, pumping considerable financial and creative resources into the vampire musical since its critical hammering during the San Francisco tryout in January. But ultimately, the studio’s nascent theatrical division has done no favors to the lost souls wandering the Palace Theater stage. After “Dance of the Vampires” and “Dracula,” it might be time to nail the coffin lid shut on all belting bloodsuckers.
The show may be much improved, but it’s still sadly beyond rescue. While its fundamental problems are manifold, chief among them is unwieldy, densely plotted source material that resists this kind of presentation; and a profound mismatch of that material with the creative talent involved.
In his first theatrical pairing with lyricist Bernie Taupin, Elton John’s songs lean mainly toward lush, bloated ballads in the Andrew Lloyd Webber or Frank Wildhorn musical vernacular, occasionally dipping into a pop mode that only dimly recalls the songwriting team’s evergreen collaborations of the 1970s. Rarely does the music adequately reflect the dark complexity or propel the busy narrative of goth-lit priestess Anne Rice’s pulpy “The Vampire Chronicles” saga.
The more significant drawback, however, is a director, Robert Jess Roth, and writer, Linda Woolverton, ill-suited to the project. Having collaborated on Disney’s long-running “Beauty and the Beast,” Roth and Woolverton employ a storytelling style still stuck in the simplistic strokes of that kid-friendly show, lurching episodically from one incident to the next without getting under the skin of Rice’s undead characters.
Denied psychological texture and anything beyond a cursory grounding in Rice’s elaborate vampire mythology, this condensed tale — set in the 18th century and lifted primarily from “Interview With the Vampire” and “The Vampire Lestat” — seems merely silly, a collision of over-earnest melodrama and unintentional camp.
Actually, with its rampant homoerotic elements and characters locked in a primal struggle to accept their nature, it seems like the prosaic plot of a gay vampire soap opera (“Guiding Bite,” perhaps?) that’s simultaneously overwrought and coy.
Lestat (Hugh Panaro) is a brooding French mama’s boy with a permanently clenched jaw and Michael Bolton’s old hairdo. After being hit on by a predatory daddy type who gives him “the dark gift,” he settles into a pattern of choosing bad boyfriends. First is his childhood pal, drippy violinist Nicolas (Roderick Hill). “One savage kiss is all he needs,” sings Lestat, but for reasons that remain mysterious, poor Nicky turns out to be too fragile for the nightlife.
Lestat moves on, wracked by guilt, leaving Europe for decadent New Orleans. Distraction comes via freshly widowed Louis (Jim Stanek), but he turns out to be another whining liability who can’t get with the program.
Lestat adopts Claudia (Allison Fischer), a growth-challenged brat with an eating disorder (she gets a binge number in “I Want More”), who does nothing to sweeten their home life.
When little Claudia turns vengeful and tries to kill Lestat, the family dissolves, only to reconvene back in Paris. But more bitter division awaits thanks to Armand (Drew Sarich), a snarky queen who’s had a thing for Lestat since the old days.
Not to forget one vital element, the first act also has heavy mother-son action. To paraphrase the coming-out scene between Lestat and his dying mother, Gabrielle (Carolee Carmello): “Mom, I’m a vampire,” says he. “Cool,” she replies. “Make me one too, son.” Fangs pierce neck, and pretty soon Gab has had a Stevie Nicks makeover and is channeling Faye Dunaway, leaping on a passing fop like some shrieking WWE banshee.
Though reportedly much streamlined since San Francisco, act one remains hopelessly encumbered by exposition — Lestat’s slaughter of a pack of wolves, kickstarting his fixation with blood; a deadweight “Morality Play” interlude about vampire history; Lestat’s trek along the Devil’s Road to find forefather Marius (Michael Genet), a kind of vampire Dalai Lama with the charisma of an emoticon.
Much of this is minimally involving for the uninitiated. For instance, Lestat and Nicolas ramble on for no good reason about life in the Auvergne: “The Black Pudding Faire, the Goat Meat Eater’s Festival, and let’s not forget Bombastic Jacques and … ” What?
Act two becomes less clunky, sticking to the more accessible plot of “Interview With the Vampire.” But even the most accomplished ensemble would have trouble breathing life into these bloodless character outlines or their hastily sketched bonds.
The cast fares better musically than dramatically, with Panaro and Carmello, especially, exhibiting powerful voices. Lestat’s “Sail Me Away” might have wielded some emotional impact in another context, as might Claudia’s song of impossible yearning for adulthood, “I’ll Never Have That Chance,” persuasively sung by Fischer. Carmello forcefully puts across “Beautiful Boy” and overblown bloodlust hymn “The Crimson Kiss.”
John’s melodies are generic at best, offering little that lingers in the mind, but Taupin’s clumsy, overly literal lyrics are the bigger burden.
Like Roth’s inert direction of the book scenes, Matt West’s musical staging is mostly static, becoming briefly animated only in the Creole-flavored “Welcome to the New World.” (Choreographer Jonathan Butterell was brought in for some creative doctoring but is uncredited.)
Visually, the show is flat and underpopulated. While Susan Hilferty’s costumes display plenty of dashing period style and Kenneth Posner’s lighting has the requisite gothic gloominess, designer Derek McLane relies too much on projections splashed across tattered parchment panels to seed atmosphere. And the effects that convey the hallucinatory rapture of blood being tasted seem lifted from faux-arty horror.
It’s the absence of more lurid or even fresh imagination that makes this lethargic vampire tale fatally dull.