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'Dracula' Has Little Bite

By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 20, 2004; Page C01

NEW YORK -- It turns out there's a fate for Dracula more terrible than undead.

Uninteresting.


Tom Hewitt, whose Count is almost catatonic throughout much of "Dracula, the Musical." The show boasts technical wizardry but lacks sensuality. (Gino Domenico -- AP)

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"Dracula, the Musical" opened at the Belasco Theatre last night, and for all the aerial calisthenics of its thirsty vampirettes and all the Count's sinking of overdeveloped canines into supple necks, this somber new musical drama is a plodding, bloodless affair. Director Des McAnuff ("The Who's Tommy") banks on the wizardry of technical people to distract an audience from the emotional lethargy of the characters and the drabness of Frank Wildhorn's monochromatic music. The evening never frees itself from the bonds of monotony. It's the stage equivalent of a powerful muscle relaxant: a snoozical.

Disasters of grander scope and eccentricity have sought to nest on Broadway in recent years; the inept "Urban Cowboy" immediately comes to mind, as does another show that sucked, er, blood, "Dance of the Vampires," with its pantheon-worthy musical salute to garlic. "Dracula, the Musical" is not quite in their league. Evident care has been lavished on the look -- Catherine Zuber's handsome late-Victorian wardrobe is a special asset -- and the director was lucky enough to have Melissa Errico for the part of Mina, the comely object of the affections of the Count From Transylvania (Tom Hewitt).

Still, these are saving graces of a minor variety. The show is a classic example of middle-of-the-road Broadway mediocrity: everything performed with taste and nothing with distinction. The very best you can say about "Dracula" is that you've seen worse.

Wildhorn specializes in adapting popular tales ("Jekyll and Hyde") and historical events ("The Civil War") for Broadway, but the topics often seem chosen for their presumed appeal to ticket buyers rather than to satisfy some desire in the composer to make a personal statement or add to our understanding. His shows mimic the prevailing Hollywood model: They're brand extensions. "Dracula, the Musical" slavishly follows the formula, presenting the story of Nosferatu through a book by Don Black and Christopher Hampton that feels so pedestrian that you can imagine at some early stage it included numerous advisories to ADD SONG HERE.

The script and score make almost no attempt to imbue the characters with inner lives; their preoccupation is with hitting all the obvious plot points. To wit, Dracula sings ominously in a Bela Lugosi accent of his designs on the fresh supplies of plasma in far-off England and the young beauties of that country like Mina and Lucy (Kelli O'Hara). His features frozen in a permanent scowl, Hewitt -- who was much more animated doing an impression of Tim Curry in the Broadway revival "The Rocky Horror Show" a few years ago -- seems close to catatonia through a lot of the proceedings. His silent-movie romantic-hero glowering is supposed to convey a smoldering sensuality, but there is not a whiff of sex in this production, even though both Errico and O'Hare are required to disrobe to varying degrees.

The parallels to that undead Broadway megahit "The Phantom of the Opera" are unmistakable. Even in half-mask, however, the Phantom is more expressive than the Dracula of "Dracula, the Musical." What you're left with is the sensation of watching a show on autopilot, with actors mouthing their gloomy dialogue and making sure they are not in the way of the set pieces and panels and lithe young women in perpetual motion all around them. (The bona fide chills, no doubt, came during the technical rehearsals.) McAnuff made a hit of "The Who's Tommy" through the wonders of the light boards and sound boards. He tries something similar in "Dracula," but since he's not working with a songwriter of Pete Townshend's caliber, there's no muscular melodic essence to justify all the mechanical embellishments. Even the show's signature number, the Act 1 finale "Life After Life," seems to evaporate on contact.

Hewitt, affixed to cables and perched on moving platforms, swoops in and out convincingly, and the girl-vampires of his castle perform variations on Cirque du Soleil above the stage.

After the 15th swoop or so, however, you recall that actors have been doing this sort of thing since "Peter Pan," and the acrobatics begin to feel less daring and more desperate.

Errico, who played Dot in "Sunday in the Park With George" during the Kennedy Center's Sondheim Celebration, is "Dracula's" most elegant adornment, and you feel for this spunky actress, trapped in such a dry show. Under more favorable conditions, other cast members would make better impressions. Chris Hoch and Bart Shatto, playing Lucy's husband and one of her earlier suitors, are saddled with lines impossible to utter without drawing astonished giggles from the audience; Stephen McKinley Henderson, as Dracula's pursuer, Van Helsing, tries to make a virtue of grimness and succeeds only in showing us the part is thankless.

What "Dracula, the Musical" vividly demonstrates is that it may be time to drive a stake through the whole overexposed vampire genre. Fans and commentators have always remarked on the Count's fatal powers of attraction. Who knew that included the ability to bore you to death?

Dracula, music by Frank Wildhorn; book and lyrics by Don Black and Christopher Hampton. Directed by Des McAnuff. Sets, Heidi Ettinger; costumes, Catherine Zuber; lighting, Howell Binkley; aerial staging, Rob Besserer; sound, Acme Sound Partners; orchestrations, Doug Besterman; choreography, Mindy Cooper; music direction, Constantine Kitsopoulos. With Don Stephenson, Darren Ritchie, Shonn Wiley. Approximately 2 hours 15 minutes. At Belasco Theatre, 111 W. 44th St., New York. Call 212-239-6200.


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