Jan 18, 2019

Flash in a Pan: 'Lestat'

Rob Harvila's much-discussed recent article on the meaning and value of harsh criticism in the age of social media got me thinking back to my days as a more or less full-time critic in New York. While it's been a while since I've delivered a full-on assault (I guess this counts), the season I covered New York openings for Broadway.com (which came to an abrupt end as detailed here) gave me plenty of fat targets: Roundabout's terrible The Threepenny Opera, the wildly overpraised dramatic hairshirt called Rabbit Hole. (Of my days reviewing in L.A. and elsewhere I might offer this exhibit of a relatively high-profile slam.) But when I think back on "favorite negative review" I inevitably settle on my review of Lestat, Elton John and Linda Woolverton's short-lived Anne Rice pilaf. Looking back, if I got anything wrong it's that I predicted the show might have a future as a camp favorite. Otherwise I stand by every word (and hey, I didn't even resort to a joke about "sucking").

Reviewed by Rob Kendt for Broadway.com
April 26, 2006

The season's most hilarious musical, it turns out, is not a comedy. It is Lestat, an adaptation of the Anne Rice vampire novels so laughable, and so sumptuously designed, that it makes for a surprisingly good time at the theater. No, musical-theater-train-wreck aficionados, it's not quite another Carrie, or even another Dance of the Vampires. Instead it comes off more like an unholy blend of the Disney musical Beauty and the Beast and the cult TV series Beauty and the Beast. In fact, I'll go out on a limb here and bet that, with its earnest embrace of Rice's labyrinthine mythology and its unabashed pop-Goth sensibility, Lestat will win over a small but ardent legion of swooning Riceheads. The rest of us will be more bemused than entranced.

Boldly forgoing the needless frills of exposition, Lestat gallops out of the gate with a senseless massacre performed in pantomime, as our title character (Hugh Panaro, dressed like a gypsy Fabio) rumbles with an unseen wolf pack and thereby unleashes his own inner beast. "Fear was never present," he sings, speaking for us all. Naturally, Lestat's newfound bloodlust means he must leave his French country estate, where his mother, despite appearing in the person of the entirely healthy-looking and full-voiced Carolee Carmello, insists she is dying, not that her son should worry.

As strange and blunt as this opening may seem, it sets the tone for the evening before us quite efficiently: Lestat will deliver a parade of characters killing, singing and painfully parting ways under the overwhelming power of inner directives that make sense only to them. When Lestat hits Paris to hang with his meek fiddler friend Nicholas (Roderick Hill), he's not there one night before a mummified Alice Cooper lookalike named Magnus (Joseph Dellger) summons him to his true calling. The queasy, faintly erotic, mostly mussy bite-and-suck ritual of vampire's feasting becomes the show's most persistent refrain: The sound goes all schwingy and woozy, while a disturbing projection of boiling orange juice is projected on the moveable bandage-flats of Derek McLane's set. As Lestat later succinctly tells Mom, who follows him to Paris after all, "He drank my blood, and I drank his blood." If only coming out were that easy.

And so the plot coagulates, from Paris to the ends of the earth, and by the second act to antebellum New Orleans, where Lestat sets up house with his newest victims-turned-vampire playmates, sensitive Louis (Jim Stanek) and a 10-year-old bad seed named Claudia (Allison Fischer). It's safe to say that we've never seen a household quite like this in a musical before: two bickering dads raising a bloodthirsty little goldilocks who will never age past 10. Though director Robert Jess Roth allows no winking or intentional camp, this sequence practically enters Little Shop of Horrors territory, only weirder, and the fierce little Fischer knocks her big numbers—"I Want More" and "I'll Never Have That Chance"—out of the park.

A few words about those numbers, and about the rest of Elton John's score, his first with longtime lyricist Bernie Taupin: Sir Elton recently boasted to The New York Times that he wrote it in two weeks, and it sounds like it. And no matter how pop-operatically ponderous or horror-movie creepy the music tries to be, it cannot be accused of over-seriousness. "Embrace it," Lestat urges Louis, in a sunny number that makes an eternity of carnivorous slaughter sound as refreshing as switching cola brands. And in a show studded with some of the worst lyrics you'll find in any Broadway show, John and Taupin's greatest crime must be the inelegant group chant, "No greater crime than to kill your kind."

To their credit, the cast delivers all this with unshakeably straight faces. Particularly impressive in this regard are Carmello, whose transformation from stately matron to blood-sucking freak offers a startlingly intentional laugh, and Drew Sarich, as an intermittent annoyance named Armand. The hunky Panaro doesn't embarrass himself, though if this role nets him offers from daytime TV, that would only be fair. Helping the show pulse with life-like shape are McLane's lush sets, Kenneth Posner's cavernous lighting, and Susan Hilferty's lavish and shockingly tasteful costumes.

Even if you feel early on a bit like the character who sings, "My need to go is hard to fight," you won't want to miss Lestat's final epiphany. "I accept what I am," he tells the man upstairs. "I am evil and I'm so sorry." We're so not.

Book by Linda Woolverton
Music by Sir Elton John, lyrics by Bernie Taupin
At the Palace Theatre

No comments: