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Dracula
Belasco Theatre
111 West 44th Street
New York

Reviewed August 2004
Running time 2:30 - one intermission
Price range $26 - $101
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The cardinal rule of a book musical is to tell a story. All the rest - the music, lyrics, sets, costumes, performances - must be in service to that goal. Here a story that has been told so well in so many other formats is attempted in the book musical format. Somehow, the creators lost sight of the basic storytelling which should provide the structure on which all the rest rests. Perhaps they thought we already know the story so well we don't need it actually told clearly. If so, they are wrong. The show gets hung up on details that go unexplained while the audience's attention is sidetracked time and time again in the frenetic direction that puts more emphasis on diversion than on narrative. As a result, Frank Wildhorn's extremely melodic score, some fine performances and a number of design touches are all squandered in a show which may well entertain those who simply go along for the ride, and even thrill the many fans of the composer, but which fails to live up to its potential and never actually captures the imagination the way a great musical should.

Storyline: Based fairly closely on Bram Stoker's 1897 novel, this musical charts the travels of a vampire from his home in Transylvania to Victorian London in search of pretty young women which are his preferred victims.

Tom Hewitt begins the evening as a fascinating, aging vampire in need of "New Blood." However, he soon gets a sip from one of the vampirettes he keeps in reserve and is temporarily rejuvenated. Unfortunately for the show, his younger self is less fascinating and he spends most of the evening flying, floating and skimming along the stage like some sort of Segway Dracula. There is little effort to explain why he moves as he does and the effect is overdone. The most spectacular effect is his completely unmotivated transformation into a bat. Impressive but superfluous. His two victims of note are Melissa Errico and Kelli O'Hara, both of whom deliver smoothly seductive performances and both of whom sing superbly. Both are also called upon to bare more than frequently seen on a Broadway stage (O'Hara: a full body exposure from behind, Errico: a single breast exposed) in scenes which, while tastefully done, are - like so much else in this show - unnecessary distractions from basic storytelling. Darren Ritchie manages to rise above the limitations of his under-written role as Errico's husband as he agonizes over what it will take to fulfill his promise to his wife to put her out of her misery when the time comes. Don Stephenson's work in a lamentably small role is so strong that he might have stolen the entire show if he had three instead of just two scenes. He even manages to captivate while nearly motionless in a straightjacket.

Director Des McAnuff comes up with one distraction after another as if determined to keep the audience from thinking too hard about the story. The show never seems to pause even for a moment to allow contemplation of a plot point or appreciation of an exquisite moment. The three vampirettes emerge from their coffins, scamper about and then rush off stage in order to don their flying gear so as to swing back and forth while Dracula flies up out of sight, drops down out of site, slides out of sight off stage right, swoops down, appears outside windows and generally moves everywhere without moving a muscle.  Just who these vampirettes are and why they are flying is never clear. McAnuff has ships' porters scampering about a dock suddenly shift to slow motion in a stunning but essentially meaningless effect. In that same scene, as the dialogue states that "This is a new century" and, thus, establishing the date as just about the year of  the invention of the aeroplane in South Carolina, the dock workers load the parts of a WW I bi-plane and a newsreel photographer cranks away at what appears to be a 16 mm camera such as Bolex introduced in the 1930s. Heidi Ettinger's sets feature so many doors, walls, cemetery monuments, ship's masts and everything else sliding all over the place that the stage is rarely static. Each of her creations is an interesting design, but few help tell the story (how is that Transylvania and England look exactly the same?).

Wildhorn's score offers a wide variety of strong melodies and plenty of opportunities for cast members to please the audience. He's working in a more sophisticated manner than he's usually given credit for, with many repeated themes that insinuate themselves into the mind, motifs to help establish characters and the discipline to avoid over-use of material. There are passionate moments set to music (Tom Hewitt's "Life after Life"), lovely solos (Kelly O'Hara's "The Mist") and duets (Darren Ritchie and Melissa Errico's "Over Whitby Bay"), a fine piece of exposition in song ("The Master's Song") and a nice comic plot song "How Do You Chose?" However, many songs seem a diversion from the central story in search of a hit - "The Heart is Slow to Learn" is likely to be heard from concert stages, in cocktail bars and on radio sets long after the show that spawned it closes. However, it really doesn't add much to the telling of the story. Others, most specifically Ritchie's tormented "Before The Summer Ends," do precisely what a number in a musical is supposed to do, give voice to emotions too strong for mere words. Orchestrator Doug Besterman has done wonders approximating the sound of a sizeable Broadway pit orchestra with just a reed player, a cellist, a percussionist and three keyboard players.

Music by Frank Wildhorn. Book and Lyrics by Don Black and Christopher Hampton. Directed by Des McAnuff. Choreographed by Mindy Cooper. Musical direction and arrangements by Constantine Kitsopoulos. Orchestrations by Doug Besterman. Design: Heidi Ettinger (set) Catherine Zuber (costumes) Howell Binkley (lights) Michael Clark (projections) Acme Sound Partners (sound) Foy (flying effects). Cast: Melissa Errico, Stephen McKinley Henderson, Tom Hewitt, Chris Hoch, Kelli O'Hara, Darren Ritchie, Bart Shatto, Don Stephenson, Shonn Wiley.