Every time we think we have finally seen the last vampire fly from the rafters and tread the boards, along comes another one to take its place. Well isn’t that to be expected of the undead. The source for this latest and admirably earnest musical resurrection is Anne Rice’s popular Vampire Chronicles, itself a veritable feast of bloodlust and sexual perversity. For starters, let’s say that “Lestat” is far and away the best of the vampire musicals that includes such failed efforts as “Dance of the Vampires” and “Dracula, the Musical.”
Credit should go to Elton John for his ambitious, if not particularly memorable, musical score, the appropriately agitated and impassioned lyrics by Bernie Taupin and the simplified book that Linda Woolverton culled from Rice’s convolutions. Theirs, however, is an earth-bound, seriously conflicted vampire who doesn’t fly from the rafters or hail from Transylvania. So much the better. He is an 18th century French nobleman with a flair for life upon the wicked stage and a fondness for young men. Despite the overriding homoerotic aspects of this version, there are only subtle inferences and indications of sex and seduction.
Those faithful followers, devotees, and adorers of the vampiric legends will be pleased to learn that the collaborators have chosen to avoid the use of camp or parody, except in the funny and eerie episode dealing with the Parisian Theater of the Vampires. Otherwise their vision of Lestat prompts us to empathize with his attempt to pursue his destiny. The story progresses through the decades and over continents but it is easy to follow. In their effort to keep the faith and not resort to a send-up of this formidable anti-hero, the musical, however, often seems to be straddling uneasily between these options.
Those most familiar with the story line, as derived from the two most popular of the Rice series, “Inteview with the Vampire” and “The Vampire Lestat,” will find on the stage of Palace Theater a musical that takes a great risk at being dramatically baroque and mostly free of technical gadgetry. The special effects are there yet modest by today’s production standards with the atmospherics largely extolling the artistry of lighting designer Kenneth Posner. My companion for the evening was not only a fan but a blood (no pun intended) relative who has performed as Count Dracula in a haunted castle for many years during the Halloween season. He was my source of authenticity. Who could ask for anything more?
The plot, in which characters tend to live by a song and then die with a scream, is tantalizing enough and kept on course by director Robert Jess Roth, with an able assist from Matt West’s musical staging. West’s most conspicuous contribution is “To Kill Your Kind,” as bizarrely danced by a troupe of vampire thespians. The insatiable nocturnal adventuring of Lestat (Hugh Panaro), with his victims all responding to his attack in the same manner, does tend toward redundancy and beg the question: where do we go from here? New Orleans, that’s where. For that we depend upon Dave McKean’s “visual concept design” and Derek McLane’s darkly Gothicized settings consisting of moving columns, slides, and projections.
Press reports from out-of-town about songs, characters, scenes, and performers being dropped and/or replaced indicated that there was plenty of work to do on this particular incarnation. What remains to be somewhat too vaguely considered is Lestat’s sexual appetite. Unlike the hypnotic cloaked seducer who visited many a virginal maiden’s boudoir, this Lestat is not so inclined. Perhaps it is we who hunger for a little nudity and a bit of gratuitous hanky panky.
Lestat is played with appropriately posturing aplomb by the tall, comely baritone Hugh Panaro. Shaking his long blond mane, he makes a dashing figure in costumer Susan Hilferty’s period attire. Panaro, who made his Broadway debut as Marius in “Les Miserables” and is a veteran of “The Phantom of the Opera,” has a lot to sing about, which allows him to give his all to the score’s best song, the soaring plea “Sail Me Away.”
For those in need of a detailed plot summary: The story chronicles Lestat’s wanderings and search for the godfather of the vampires in the hope of finding closure and redemption. The exposition, in which the young Lestat has a surreal battle with a pack of wolves, is impressively staged. And his subsequent decision to leave the home of his tyrannical, abusive father and his ailing mother, Gabrielle (Carolee Carmello), whom he adores, serves nicely to set the stage for his wanderings. Lestat’s subsequent encounter with an aging vampire from whom he inherits the curse of eternal life is climaxed with the vampire’s self immolation in a blaze of fire and is very effective. Carmello, who has one of the best voices in the business, makes an impressive transformation as Lestat’s here-today-gone-tomorrow consort.
Lestat’s theatrical career takes off in Paris where he gives his dying mother new life, if you can call it that. Lestat also rekindles his affection for his childhood friend, Nicholas (Roderick Hill), who plays the violin at the theater. We know where things are going when he accepts the naive but infatuated Nicholas’s hospitality and shares his single bed. Things liven up in New Orleans (“Welcome to the New World”), where Lestat sets up housekeeping with Louis (Jim Stanek), a morose widower, and Claudia (Allison Fischer), a 10-year-old waif consigned to live in perpetual childhood. Fischer’s fiendish performance raises the stakes (no pun intended) with her tantrums and her powerhouse singing in “I’ll Never Have That Chance” and “I Want More.” Drew Sarich inspires chills as Lestat’s nemesis, Armand, as does Michael Genet, as the illusive vampire Marius.
That Lestat fails to engage us with his romantic side may be regrettable. But the seriously-intended musical in which he resides is far from regrettable and should attract and please those who want to quench (as the song says) “The Thirst.” **
“Lestat,” Palace Theater, 1564 Broadway. $65 to $100. 212-307-4100.