by Michael Criscuolo · December 11, 2002
Dance of the Vampires, the new musical currently running at the Minskoff Theatre, is a GREAT BIG SHOW! Rock & roll lighting flashes and blinds, dry ice wafts, leggy showgirls prance, and amplified voices throb. Jaw-dropping set piece after jaw-dropping set piece rolls in. Its attitude alone—one of unbridled, over-the-top showmanship—is enough to make it the biggest show on Broadway. In fact, the show's razzmatazz sensibility favors an even stronger theme-park environment than Broadway: Las Vegas.
But, even after I'd decided that Dance of the Vampires represented the triumph of bad taste over good aestheticism, the words of one of my old college teachers echoed over and over in my head: "If it's cheese, eat it." That advice served me well during the show. Dance of the Vampires is, if nothing else, cheesy: it marries the out-of-control spoofiness of Bat Boy to the unbelievably thorough awfulness of Jekyll & Hyde. So, I dug in and bit off a big ol' hunk of cheese. Imagine my surprise when I came away gleefully savoring the taste of what must surely be the guiltiest pleasure of the year.
Dance of the Vampires, based on Roman Polanski's 1967 cult horror spoof The Fearless Vampire Killers (which features Polanski alongside his soon-to-be-famous-for-all-the-wrong-reasons wife, Sharon Tate), follows the exploits of a legendary vampire hunter, Professor Abronsius (Rene Auberjonois), and his aide, Alfred (Max Von Essen), as they try to rid a small Carpathian village of its vampire menace, Count von Krolock (Michael Crawford), and save the local ingénue, Sarah (Mandy Gonzalez), from his evil clutches.
I must say that the negative reviews of Dance of the Vampires have me baffled. Admittedly, it isn't art, but it isn't intended to be, either. The creators have only two goals in mind—to entertain, and to wow the audience—both of which they successfully (if not always admirably) achieve. And, even though you'd never know it from the rest of New York's drama corps, they never ask the audience to take Dance of the Vampires seriously, which automatically sets it a notch or two above similar, unsuccessful dreck with which it may be grouped (e.g., Jekyll & Hyde).
Dance of the Vampires is funny, but mostly for the wrong reasons. The breezy, cavalier book by David Ives, Jim Steinman, and Michael Kunze contains a ton of jokes, none of which inspire laughter because of their well-crafted hilarity. Rather, they cause one to laugh at the bizarre things their creators think are funny. Example: a pre-show announcement assuring the audience that "no vampires were harmed during the making of this show." Huh? Or how about von Krolock's opening line, which follows an ear-drum shattering, special-effects laden entrance: "God has left the building." Wow. By the time a vampire bat implores a weak-minded villager to kick Professor Abronsius' ass (no, I'm not kidding), you'll be coughing up blood from laughing so hard.
The real schmaltz, however, comes from Steinman's score. He is most well-known as the songwriting mastermind behind both of Meat Loaf's Bat Out of Hell albums, as well as a slew of other songs by Bonnie Tyler, Air Supply, Celine Dion, Barbra Streisand, and many other contemporary artists. The man clearly knows how to write a hit song, and about rock & roll showmanship. But, he knows little about traditional Broadway musical storytelling: the Act I number in which the villagers sing about the benefits of garlic is proof enough of that. Not only does is keep the vampires away, but it makes deodorant (didn't know that, did you), and the men chalk it up to why they're so well-endowed (seriously—I'm not joking). Once again, funny, but for all the wrong reasons.
Luckily, Steinman's strengths are also on full display in Dance of the Vampires. Steinman's tuneful pop/rock pastiche of a score lays the bombast on thick, and leaves plenty of room for vocal histrionics. He even plagiarizes himself a couple of times: once, when he lifts the spoken intro from Meat Loaf's "You Took the Words Right Out of My Mouth," and uses it as dialogue; and again, later, when he uses his Bonnie Tyler hit "Total Eclipse of the Heart" as the Act II opener. And, even though the shamelessness of these moments is better suited for a Vegas floor show than a Broadway musical, they are quite entertaining.
Director John Rando has fun mocking everything from 1960s Hammer horror films to 1980s pop/rock musicals, and choreographer John Carrafa has fun ripping off Staying Alice and Thriller. Their work keeps Dance of the Vampires moving at such a crazy, breathless pace that I forgot to look at my watch all throughout the performance. Quite an accomplishment, in my book.
And, the actors all have fun, too, even though it can't really be said that any of them are acting. They look like they're almost through feeling embarrassed to be in this show, though, which is saying a lot. Crawford trades on his personality, poses well on stage, and relishes the ridiculousness of wearing leather pants and speaking in an awful Italian accent (even though his character is named von Krolock). As the young lovers, Gonzalez proves she can shriek and trill with the best of the pop divas, and Von Essen displays a gorgeous traditional Broadway voice. Best of all is Auberjonois, who plays the whole show as seriously as possible—which only makes him funnier. God bless him for actually trying.
For me, the work that Dance of the Vampires is most comparable to is the movie Showgirls. Without any thematic or narratives similarities, the only thing the two works have in common is their sheer audacity: they must be seen to be believed. Dance of the Vampires is unlike any musical you've ever seen before, and any you will ever see after. You will be embarrassed to tell people you liked it. But, you will tell them you liked it. And, you will be very embarrassed.