“Kiss Me Kate” goes Goth in the Katselas Theater Company’s world premiere production of Scott Martin’s bloodless tuner “Children of the Night.” The intriguing tale of “Dracula” author Bram Stoker’s life behind the scenes in the London theater and his frustrating relationship with actor Henry Irving provide sufficient drama, but Martin’s musical style and book are smothered in the dust of ’70s Brit tuners. One-note characters and cliched dialogue leave the actors with few choices to make, though refreshing perfs from fine singer Teri Bibb and giddy Gibby Brand suggest some of the material has potential.
“Children” has gone through extensive development, starting at the Global Search for New Musicals in Cardiff, moving to the Sony-BBC produced Intl. Festival for New Musical Theater, and then landing in Southern California at the Intl. Festival of Musical Theater. Despite that healthy list of productions, problems abound: The songs suffer from oft-repeated structures; multipronged stories do not sufficiently push the central drama; and the conclusion — something to the effect of unleashing buried love to conquer convention — comes out of nowhere.
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“Children of the Night,” a reference to actors, is based on truth. Stoker (Robert Patteri) is the business manager of the Royal Lyceum Theater in London. It is 1897, and he has completed his manuscript of “Dracula: Or the Undead.” A former critic and theater rat, he also wants to turn the novel into a stage work and cast his employer/benefactor/idol Henry Irving (Gordon Goodman) in the lead role. Stoker has already enlisted the services of the Lyceum company, led with frivolity by stage manager Harry J. Loveday (Brand).
Irving’s refusal to be involved in the show tears at Stoker. His responses, which include tenderness, rage and a display of his accounting skills, fail to move Irving, whom Stoker derides for being unwilling to try anything new. Tuner’s subplots involve Stoker comforting Irving’s wife Ellen Terry over the actor’s infidelities; troubles in Stoker’s marriage to society gal Florence (Alison Robertson); and, in the end, an incongruous emotional awakening brought on by a conversation between Stoker and Oscar Wilde (John Racca) in prison.
Patteri has yet to fully embrace the character, stumbling at times on lines and emoting solely with rage. Stoker is also the play’s narrator, which theoretically should give him room to fluctuate tone between storyteller and human being. That distinction was not present on opening night.
Goodman gives Irving a healthy pomposity, yet as the play develops, his singing improves but his acting starts to feel like a collection of workshop activities. (The difference between Irving’s drunkenness and his sudden illness is a cough.)
Bibb, a veteran of Broadway and of touring productions of “The Phantom of the Opera,” “Children’s” strongest influence, is impressive as the stately Ellen Terry. The show’s cleverest moment — the two husbands and wives, in separate locations, simultaneously address the keeping of secrets — succeeds on its own, but after Bibb displays her technical grace on her solo ballad, “Still on the Stage,” it’s clear she’s in a class of her own here.
Show opener “As Mr. Stoker Says” raises the curtain with a lighthearted air. Second song, a duet between Irving and Stoker, “It Isn’t for Me,” has tremendous comedy potential as the actor dissects his issues with the Dracula character — “He’s dead/he flies?/he drinks human blood?/No!” — but it’s played too straight, especially by Patteri, whose tiresome talk-singing style unflatteringly exposes Martin’s overreliance on couplets. “Soliloquy” goes on as long as the similarly titled tune from “Carousel,” but with more tempo and mood changes than necessary, and lacks cohesion; Patteri has no control of the number.
It is, though, a backstage musical and the ensemble work adds a comedic richness to otherwise weighty issues of art vs. commerce and the power of love. Martin’s two comic-relief songs, one in each act, are real kicks in the pants. Ashley Cuellar, Melissa Bailey and Gabrielle Wagner sing about their aspirations — and willingness to be bedded — to get parts in Gilbert and Sullivan productions in “How Do I Get a Part With the D’oyly Carte?”; Brand, a consummate jolly fellow, and the ensemble run through a litany of theatrical superstitions in “The Scottish Play,” a smartly crafted tune that belongs in any revue featuring actors performing for a crowd of insiders.
Director David Galligan and choreographer Lee Martino do wonders with the small stage. Galligan has much of the dialogue tightly focused, especially when only two actors are onstage; Martino makes the workspace feel as though it has doubled when the ensemble gets into its more boisterous activities. A. Jeffrey Schoenberg’s costumes smartly represent the times with the subdued tones of autumn. Accompaniment is limited to Ross Kalling’s piano, which limits the colors in the music.