Theatre Matters

Contemplations on the dramatic arts from a national perspective

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Steven Oxman has contributed to such publications as the Los Angeles Times, American Theatre, Stagebill, and, most frequently, Variety, for which he has written over 300 television and theatre reviews.

Saturday, January 28, 2006

Lestat: More Blood Please

I caught the new musical "Lestat" in its tryout run in San Francisco. Based on the Anne Rice vampire novels, this show has a lot going for it marketing-wise, with Elton John writing the music and his longtime collaborator, lyricist Bernie Taupin, making his first go at a stage show.

This is definitely a show in some trouble. The next few days will likely see announcements regarding a director change, and there are now rumors it may not even make it to NYC for its March launch.

I'm going to throw in my 2 cents about what this $12+ million production needs to do to improve, and fast. It's up to Warner Bros. Theatricals producer Gregg Maday to keep the focus where it needs to be.

The biggest problem with the show is that it's just plain tepid. From the opening number, everything feels incredibly flat. The songs mosly all sound the same, and don't give the actors a chance to show off vocal skills. The story's muddy. The set, while not dragging the show down, has projections that look like a weak web-site. In tone it feels like it's targeted to a family audience, which means it's not sexy, it's not thrilling, and it's not deep. We've already seen that bloodless vampire shows fail fast.

So, here's the path I'd lay out if I were Mr. Maday:

1. Hire a new director. This radical work requires that kind of break.

2. Get the whole team together to clarify Lestat's emotional through-line. I don't know these books well -- I read "Interview with a Vampire" years ago and saw the movie. But I just couldn't follow where Lestat was at regarding his moral dilemma -- the need to kill to survive. Sometimes he agonizes, sometimes he urges others (like Louis) to just get over it. I couldn't enter the character's mind. I don't necessarily agree with some reviews that there's "too much story." I just couldn't tell what the inner story was, and therefore his adventures had no drive to them and felt piled on. This is where it's more important to be simple than to be faithful to Rice's original.

All else follows from this single charge.

3. Once the story has been simplified and clarified, the director should make a list of at least 8 to 10 moments in the show that should thrill the audience with climactic emotion. So the main tack here is: clarify the story and then attack the bloodlessness of the current show.

4. Half of these miniature climaxes should be musical moments, so send John and Taupin off to work on rewriting at least 4 or 5 of the songs to achieve these. I don't recall the last time I saw an audience clap at the end of songs with such un-moved politeness. Right now, the only song that even registers as dramatic is "I Want More," sung by Lestat and Louis's daughter. The rest are all pop ballads sung pretty much at the same register. (Elton John reveals in his video interview at Playbill.com that he wrote the score in 11 days singing all the characters himself. On the down side, that explains why they all sound so similar. On the upside, it means he can re-write them fast.). Also charge them with making sure the actors get a chance to achieve real musical crescendoes.

5. Two or three thrilling moments should be scenic spectacles. The disintegration scenes as is, with a projected ribbon of flame, don't work. I don't think there's time to re-do the whole set design if you want to get to Broadway on time, so focus on improving/adding a few special effects.

6. Pump up the sexiness of Lestat's relationships, and face the fact that this story has loads of homo-eroticism. To work, Lestat must be a passionate figure and as is that essential element is undermined by a fear of expressing the obviously sexual undercurrents here. This is an area where the show could be MORE faithful to Rice. Lestat is NOT Ennis Del Mar!

Yes, this is a big risk, but now's the time for big risks. This show needs passion.

7. Achieving this passion may require re-casting some of the supporting roles; there are several fine singers with only mediocre acting skills.

That's plenty to focus on, but I also think it's do-able.