Lestat: The Musical: The Review
Like "Wicked" from a few years ago, Broadway is trying out a new musical here in San Francisco to iron out the kinks before transplanting the show to the Great White Way. They’ve tried it a few times and have had successes (i.e. "Wicked") and failures (the John Lennon musical "Imagine," the Cuban mambo musical "The Mambo Kings" based on the 1992 film of the same name) and now Warner Bros. are putting their substantial bucks and bravado behind a musical adaptation of Anne Rice’s The Vampire Chronicles, specifically using material from the first two books of the series, Interview With The Vampire and The Vampire Lestat with music and lyrics by that bastion of 70’s drip-dry rock and 80’s treacle, Elton John and Bernie Taupin.
Frankly, when I first heard about the premise I was agog with anticipation, thinking this was either going to be an amazing marriage made in heaven (or, more accurately, hell) given the overt homoerotic nature of the material and Mr. John’s proclivity for penning incredibly tuneful and memorable songs, or horribly, incredibly bad — and not in the good “Showgirls” way, but in the regular old bad, bad way.
It winds up that Lestat, currently in previews, is somewhere in-between.
I am, or was, a big fan of Ms. Rice’s works, and in particular of the two volumes used to create this mess of a musical. They are sprawling works written in flowery, romaticized prose of the type that is not going to be everyone’s cup of tea, and they cover a whole lot of ground in their combined pages. One big problem that may not be able to be overcome in this stage version is that they attempt, over the course of its two acts and three-plus hours, to cover all of it. Not only are the characters left with trying to explain everything that’s happening and did happen and is about to happen involving sects of vampires of varying ages and degree of supernatural power, but there are also type-written introductions appearing on scrims between each scene to make sure the audience is keeping up.
For the record, that’s too much plot and not enough character. And therein lies the central problem with “Lestat;” we are never allowed the time to fall in like with anyone. The character of Lestat is not one that the majority of the audience can readily identify with anyway. His leading characteristics are arrogance and loneliness, and as embodied by Hugh Panero — whose cheekbones could slice one open as easily as his (non-existent) fangs — I was left wondering only when he would break into song again rather than wanting him to succeed at being… whatever it is he is trying so desperately to be. Mr. Panero has an amazing voice and he certainly looks the rogue, but the part as written is more childish whiner than powerful vampire, and he ends up coming off more annoying than interesting.
The songs are another major problem. When you leave a musical, you want to be humming a tune you just heard, if not belting out the chorus because you simply can’t help yourself, so carried away are you by theater’s ability to captivate and electrify like no other artistic medium. But there is no “Memory” here, no “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going,” no “I Am What I Am.” You can literally feel them trying to create a couple of hit songs in there, because they stick out and make their presence known. Largely, due to that plotting problem, the songs are also brought into play to bring the plot forward rather than establish something about the character singing them.
There are three exceptions, two of which appear for no other reason than to have a Hit Song suddenly appear. One is sung by child vampire Claudia (played full-throated and with the right balance of menace and innocence by Allison Fischer) who wanders center stage after a set change and starts singing about all the things she’ll never enjoy because she’s frozen in time as a little girl. But the song is aimless and stilted, and the chorus sucks.
Another song appears earlier in the production when Lestat’s mother, Gabrielle (a wonderful Carolee Carmelo, managing to convey the tired, out-of-place mother who sends her son into the world and the self-assured, masculine vampire with equal grace) also laments her own life, so there’s a lot of woe-is-me balladry happening.
The third set piece number that literally appears to be sandwiched into the musical as an afterthought has Lestat standing at the bow of a ship sailing back to Europe from New Orleans, having just been set up and burned alive — er, dead — by Louis and Claudia and singing about going home again. This number screams “Hit Single,” or at least an attempt at one, but it too falls flat mostly because you wonder why it’s occurring at all.
I suppose I should attempt to encapsulate some of the plot so those of you unfamiliar with the books — and I have to believe that if you haven’t read them, you don’t care about seeing this musical anyway (another built-in problem) — so you can see how much needs to happen on that single audio-visual stage set that doubles as one of the world’s biggest TV sets.
Unlike most current musicals since “The Phantom of the Opera” proved that a falling chandelier could be the most dynamic cast member on the stage, “Lestat” mostly eschews large physical special effects in favor of loud, weird short films superimposed over the entire stage. Generally, these illustrate that any time you drink someone’s blood, you also get to see their entire life flash before your eyes after taking a repetitive white-water rafting trip through their bloodstream. What your victim sees is left to your imagination, which probably works better. After the seventh or eighth trip through someone’s arterial highway, I was hoping just one victim had nothing interesting happen in their life worth showing.
But, the plot. Lestat is the son of a French nobleman in the 1800’s. Unappreciated by his father, his mother gives him some jewels and advises that he leave their country estate and go into the world to discover who he is. Taking along his best friend Nicolas, the two go to Paris and join the theatre, Lestat as the handsome leading man and Nicolas as an expert violinist. I’m sure we can all relate to that. Soon, Lestat is seized by an old vampire, Magnus and given “the dark gift” before his maker throws himself into a fire, explaining nothing at all of what being a vampire means.
The common theme of lonliness and abandonment comes in early as Lestat turns both Nicolas and his mother into vampires, hoping they will stay with him. Nicolas goes batty, and Gabrielle gets bored of her son’s continual lamentations about the meaning of it all. Enter Armand, a smarmy and unlovable vampire who runs the Paris coven from teh catacombs, teaching the other vampires that they are borne of Satan and must stay underground and be afraid all the time, a theory which Lestat and Gabrielle easily disproove (in a musical number, obviously) making Lestat his first real enemy. However, Armand tells Lestat about his own maker, Marius, an ancient vampire with many secrets to empart about this life.
Nicolas finally offs himself and Gabrielle wants to go exploring the world, so Lestat goes underground, literally, as the stage rises around him in a rather awkward depiction of self burial. Suddenly, the skies open up and out pops a rather large black man in red robes, and just when you think it’s Geoffrey Holder making his comeback, we learn it’s actually Marius and he lifts Lestat from his weird relief-map burial and the orchestra suddenly bursts into a loud harrangue to wake the audience up so they can go out and grab a smoke between acts.
Act two opens on a hopeful note, as Marius tells Lestat to go to America because Europe is such a downer. At last, we think, we’re going to get to the happy part of the musical. Alas, it is not to be.
Two scene changes later, we are in the New Orleans estate of Lestat and his current partner-lover-depression, Louis. For about half of act two, Lestat starts acting like the Lestat from “Interview.” The first half of the play was all earnestness, and suddenly we’re treated to a prick who’s at least fun and entertaining, but there’s a disconnect between the two characterizations that never clicks. Why is he suddenly acting like this?
As mentioned, Lestat tries again to keep everyone happy by killing people and then gets burned up. Chasing Louis and Claudia back to Paris, he again encounters Armand who has taken over the Theatre of the Vampires where Louis and Claudia have landed. Finding that Claudia tried to kill her maker, they expose her to the sun and she goes up like a Roman Candle. We are only slightly annoyed by this because she was the most interesting character on stage, and now we’re left with nothing but all these self-righteous cry babies who can fly and are both immortal and impervious to pretty much everything but ennui.
And remember, I’m a fan.
Anyway, in the books, the ending is a cliffhanger as Lestat again goes underground only to be woken by a loud rock group practicing in his abandoned New Orleans house. He emerges, takes over lead vocals and comes out to the world as a vampire, making all the other vampires pissed off until the queen of all vampires appears and sets up the third book — but they can’t end a musical with a cliffhanger, can they? That’s not really an ending, so how are they going to resolve that?
In short, the don’t. The ending is horrible. I think I was supposed to take a lesson from the previous three hours and leave the theatre appreciating my life and all the people I’ve killed in order to make them stay with me, sort of like John Wayne Gacy, because what happens in the play is that Lestat gets another visit from The Wiz, ascends a staircase, drinks from the arm of the vampire queen and then all the other main characters appear to sing us to the curtain call with a song about, as far as I could tell, what a great time is to be had when one embraces death. Or something like that. Really, it was hard for me to tell what was going on because I was laughing to hard to see through my tears.
“Lestat” doesn’t work as musical theatre. It could, but in its present form it suffers from the same problem as the first two Harry Potter films. It tries too hard to be faithful to the source material. It treats Anne Rice’s words and characters with a reverence usually reserved for Biblical epics. The few sparks of (intentional) humor were so sparce that when you were allowed to feel something other than a headache, it was like pouring cool water down a parched throat. There’s an absurdity to the situation that should occur even to the characters on stage dealing with what’s happening around them that’s never dealt with, and the audience is being bombarded with so much plot in the form of dialogue, songs, short films and voice-overs that it’s all a little like sitting through a third grade filmstrip presentation about vampiric history.
Then there are the songs, which are almost uniformly forgetful, and a few are simply dreadful. The sole exception in my view is when Claudia, the child vampire, sings of wanting more. It manages to finally inject some life in what is otherwise a succession of turgid requiems coming from the pens of one of the most successful and talented pop song teams in history. Elton, what the hell is wrong? Did marriage strip you of your sense of humor?
I hope they can pull this together before heading east, because there’s potential within the source material, but it needs to become a lot more like “Little Shop of Horrors” than Les Miz.
January 8, 2006