Reviewed By: Barbara & Scott Siegel
The pre-opening buzz for Dance of the Vampires suggested that critics would, you'll excuse the expression, be dancing on this production's grave. Well, you can drive a stake through the heart of the buzz, because the show may well turn out to be a bat-out-of-hell hit. DOTV rises from its would-be grave thanks to a book loaded with comic one-liners that have the zany ring of the work of co-author David Ives. It fully comes to life in its deliriously gothic set designs by David Gallo, tongue-in-cheek direction by John Rando, and a dead-on cast led by Michael Crawford, all of whom know how to bite into a gag.
The show is based on Roman Polanski's The Fearless Vampire Killers but it owes just as much -- if not more -- to Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein. The Polanski movie was sly and darkly comic; the Broadway musical, with a book by Ives, Jim Steinman, and Michael Kunze, goes for broad comedy and veers toward Vegas at times. You might want to call it Shlockula, but it's shlock that's entirely self-aware and happily proud of its excesses. That attitude is evident as soon as the audience enters the lobby of the Minskoff Theatre to find that the ticket takers are dressed in vampire capes. We are, indeed, in the House of Usher when we see all of the ushers decked out in the same ghoulish garb.
The story of the musical hardly bears repeating. It's simply a nutty variation, with music and dance thrown in, on the old Dracula tale -- though, in this case, the villain is named Count von Krolock. DOTV generally maintains a healthy balance between myth and comic mayhem; it needs the tension that comes from playing sexual/romantic intensity against goofy satire. Only in the second act does the script sometimes go flaccid, heading too far into camp and, ultimately, into vulgarity.
But, for the most part, it's Halloween at the Minskoff in the sense that the show is full of tricks and treats. One of the tricks is the use of the '80s pop hit "Total Eclipse of the Heart," by Jim Steinman, for the musical's biggest show-stopping number. Steinman wrote all of the music and lyrics for Dance of the Vampires, so he's only stealing from himself, but the effectiveness of that particular song only serves to highlight the relative disappointment of the rest of the score. Still, there are several genuinely good numbers here -- for example, "Original Sin" and "There's Never Been a Night Like This." They are among the show's treats.
The biggest treat is the emergence of Mandy Gonzalez, who plays the show's heroine, Sarah. She is this season's Sutton Foster, come out of nowhere to give a galvanizing performance. Gonzalez plays the innocent young girl drawn into the exciting world of the vampires. Torn between the heroic Alfred (Max von Essen) and the mesmerizing Count von Krolock (Michael Crawford), Sarah is a role that allows Gonzalez to give what might best be described as a sexually charged musical comedy performance. Nonetheless, the show belongs to Crawford who has great fun tweaking his fame as the original Phantom of the Opera. He tosses off comic one-liners with a delicious ersatz accent and sings like a man possessed (pun intended). In the Act I closer, "Come With Me," he holds a big, brassy note so long that it not only brings the curtain down, it brings the house down.
In addition to Crawford and Gonzalez, DOTV has a strong cast of featured actors, all of whom are on the same comic page. They get laughs when they talk, but the audience is rapt and silent when they sing. The talented bunch includes the redoubtable René Auberjonois as the vampire killer, Professor Abronsius, and the winning Max von Essen as the young hero. Mark Price is priceless as a put-upon servant who is happily turned into a vampire. Ron Orbach gives a juicy performance as a flawed father and husband, while Leah Hocking as his mistress and Liz McCartney as his wife shine when they duet in one of the show's best numbers, "Death Is Such an Odd Thing."
The show's undead dancers would have been great dates at Zombie Prom. In one of the show's most inspired sequences, Dance of the Vampires spoofs an old-time Broadway tradition and gives us a Dream Ballet -- or, if you will, a Nightmare Ballet. Its characters include a Dream Sarah (Jennifer Savelli), a Dream Alfred (Jonathan Sharp), and a Dream Vampire (Edgar Godineaux) performing a hallucinogenic stretch of choreography by John Carrafa.
Unfortunately, not one human sound gets past the footlights and out into the audience. The sound design by Richard Ryan is truly a horror. It isn't simply that the show is too loud, it's that the amplification turns a lot of the lyrics into soup, particularly in the group numbers. We understand that the production is having fun with Michael Crawford's otherworldly voice as heard in Phantom, so the guys at the sound board are cranking up the volume and turning up the echo effects; but this would have been more effective if done more sparingly.
Dance of the Vampires is not going to appeal to a hardcore, traditional theater audience, but it plays like a musical pinball machine. The show is an almost inexhaustible pastiche of every horror cliché this side of Bram Stoker, and we suspect that many people will find it wildly entertaining.