By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 10, 2002; Page C01
NEW YORK -- What, I ask you, is any musical about vampires without a splashy production-number tribute to the glories of garlic? Yes, indeed, the herb that keeps the undead at bay is celebrated through frantic song and even more frantic choreography in "Dance of the Vampires," a frazzled new $12 million show at the Minskoff Theatre that has a repellent power all its own.
"Garlic" is sung by the beleaguered townsfolk of a Transylvanian village that is being menaced by Michael Crawford, decked out in fangs, capes and hair in a Liberace pouf. Trailing ropes of garlic bulbs the length of mature boa constrictors, the peasants melodically acknowledge the beneficial properties of the smelly menu enhancer, including some benefits of which the public previously had not been apprised.
"Garlic! Garlic! The secret of staying young," the ensemble sings. "Garlic! Garlic! That's why we're so well hung!"
Um, want me to run that by you again? No? Good call. "Dance of the Vampires," with music and lyrics by pop songwriter Jim Steinman ("Total Eclipse of the Heart"), is described in its promotional material as a musical spoof. Somewhere on the road to Broadway -- which began in Vienna, where a German-language version staged by Roman Polanski apparently has had them rolling in the aisles for years -- the creative team gave up on spoof and settled on schlock.
Weighted down by David Gallo's dark-arts parade of garish sets and seamy-looking costumes out of Dracula's reject trunk by Ann Hould-Ward, "Dance of the Vampires" is one of those extravagant misfires that instantly become part of theater lore. Overacted and overamplified (why is volume such a reliable barometer of unbearable theater?), it mistakes stilted humor and lame caricature for over-the-top parody. Gay vampire gags, anybody? Come on, give us a break. If "Vampires," which opened last night, is instructive in any way, it's in allowing the confirmation of a long-held belief: Sometimes bad taste is just bad taste.
The musical, based on Polanski's 1967 satirical horror movie "The Fearless Vampire Killers," sets an uncertain tone from its introductory moments when, like the stranded lovers in the much funnier "Rocky Horror Show," three young girls fall into the clutches of a netherworld Svengali. In a gaudy opening number, featuring a light show by Ken Billington that would even seem a little much at an Alice Cooper concert, the buff vampires and vampirettes perform handsprings and spin like eager tryouts for the Transylvanian gymnastics team.
On a hydraulic lift, a coffin rises, immersed in stage smoke. Out pops Crawford in spooky makeup. He's Count Von Krolock, and he's out for blood. "God," he declares in an Italian accent (what can I tell you?), "has left the building."
So has common sense. In the place of wit, there are phallic jokes. Lots and lots of them. Male genitalia is the butt, so to speak, of endless ribbing by the musical's book writers, Steinman, Michael Kunze and David Ives. This culminates in a scene in Von Krolock's castle in which Crawford presents to a male guest a commemorative sponge in the shape of a penis. (It's a campy moment in a campy performance. One of the evening's few intrigues is trying to guess at how consciously Crawford is sending up his celebrated portrayal of the Phantom of the Opera, which made him a star.)
Could this have worked in a scaled-down version in some off-Broadway hole in the wall? I don't think so; it's not even kitschy-funny. As it is, the only chills aroused by "Vampires" come in a perusal of the credits: How could so many talented people have shot so wide of the mark? Apart from pros like Ives, Billington and Gallo, the production also boasts an accomplished director, John Rando ("Urinetown"), and choreographer, John Carrafa ("Into the Woods").
None of these sharp theater minds has cracked the code to making "Vampires" the romp it was apparently desperate to become. So desperate, in fact, that a bouncy, we're-coming-to-get-you ending has been tacked on that looks as if it were designed for insertion in the next "I Love New York" ad campaign. The advice for theatergoers is just what you might give to those garlic-wearing villagers: Run for your lives.
Dance of the Vampires, music and lyrics by Jim Steinman; book by Steinman, David Ives and Michael Kunze. Directed by John Rando; music supervision, Michael Reed; sets, David Gallo; lighting, Ken Billington; choreography, John Carrafa. With Rene Auberjonois, Mandy Gonzalez, Leah Hocking, Liz McCartney, Mark Price, Ron Orbach, Max Von Essen and Asa Somers. Approximately 2 hours 30 minutes. At the Minskoff Theatre, Manhattan. Call 212-307-4100 or visit www.ticketmaster.com.