By BEN BRANTLEY
Where's a mask when you need one?
Michael Crawford, who sported a dashing half-mask for his Tony-winning performance in "The Phantom of the Opera" in 1988, would have done well to have donned a fuller version for his return to Broadway. Rigged up as a taxidermic variation on his Phantom persona, Mr. Crawford opened last night in a show called "Dance of the Vampires" at the Marquis Theater. It is an enterprise to be associated with only under the veil of anonymity.
Why, surely that can't be that suave trouper René Auberjonois hiding so uneasily behind a beard and mustache as a bumbling ghoul-hunting professor. Is it possible that John Rando, who won a Tony for his direction of "Urinetown," is responsible for the wit-free staging? Or that John Carrafa, who brought effortless charm to the dances in "Into the Woods," oversaw the thudding choreography?
Did David Ives, the author of the blissful "All in the Timing," truly collaborate on the light-as-lead book? And those funguslike sets that look so expensive and so cheap, that junior-prom lighting: they can't be the work of David Gallo and Ken Billington, can they?
It isn't, of course, just the undead who salivate at the smell of blood. Theater disaster cultists, a breed that makes Vlad the Impaler look small-time, have had their fangs at the ready ever since the early buzz began on "Vampires," which features songs by the rock composer Jim Steinman and was first presented in Vienna with a book and lyrics in German by Michael Kunze.
Hopes were high that this musical might be in the league of platinum-plated flops like "Carrie" and "Moose Murders." And it's true that there are moments that climb into the stratosphere of legendary badness.
The show would appear to be trying to capture the spirit of "The Rocky Horror Show," the musical that brought high-heeled camp to electric rock.
But "Vampires," which is set in a dark and moldy place called Lower Belabartòkovich in the 1880's, doesn't have anything like the same sustained point of view. The original movie, while hardly top-drawer Polanski, was at least true to its goofy intentions, which brought to mind a post-sexual-liberation answer to "Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy."
This show, on the other hand, wants to be campy, preachy, lewd and romantically rhapsodic all at once. It careens through everything from a limp Gilbert and Sullivan-style patter song to a series of all-ghoul dance numbers that, with their tattered shroudlike costumes by Ann Hould-Ward, suggest a bunch of drunk high school kids trying to replicate Michael Jackson's "Thriller" video.
The overall effect is of a desperately protracted skit from a summer replacement variety show of the late 1960's, the kind on which second-tier celebrities showed up to make fun of themselves. Dialogue sample: When Mr. Auberjonois's character introduces his assistant (Max von Essen) as "my young factotum," a loutish inkeeper (Ron Orbach) says, "If that means what I think it does, those two can leave right now."
Mr. Crawford gets his share of such clunkers, including his opening line, made after his entrance from a skull-festooned black casket: "God has left the building." Perhaps he chose "Vampires" as his ticket back to Broadway because his role here does bear a resemblance to the diabolical but lonely Phantom. It even has its own version of "The Music of the Night," a lumbering ballad called "Come With Me."
Such parallels tend to blur memories of Mr. Crawford's genuinely haunting performance in "Phantom." Mr. Crawford, who has done time in Las Vegas, appears to have picked up a stylistic trick or two there.