Reviewed by Judy Richter
Novelist Anne Rice's "Vampire Chronicles" series has inspired a new musical, "Lestat," that has reeled in some major creative talents, including composer Elton John, lyricist Bernie Taupin and book writer Linda Woolverton. It also has attracted big-bucks backing to become the first production of the new Warner Bros. Theatre Ventures. It's making its world premiere at the Curran Theatre in San Francisco before an intended transfer to Broadway sometime this spring.
Woolverton's book condenses the thicket of characters and events in the vampire books to focus on Lestat, who's featured in "The Vampire Lestat," the second book in the series. Lestat (Hugh Panaro) is a handsome 18th century aristocrat who has grown up in the French countryside as something of an outsider, even to his family, except for his beloved mother, Gabrielle (Carolee Carmello). He gains some renown when he single-handedly kills a pack of eight wolves that had been bedeviling local farmers. He also attracts the attention of a vampire who turns him into a vampire. But Lestat -- despite his nightly forays to nourish himself with human blood -- is something of a reluctant vampire who constantly ponders morality.
His wanderings take him throughout Europe, to Egypt and New Orleans, and back to Paris and Greece. Along the way, he tries to assuage his loneliness by creating vampire companions, starting with the dying Gabrielle and his best friend and perhaps lover, Nicolas (Roderick Hill). After they abandon him, he creates a little family in New Orleans by making vampires of Louis (Jim Stanek), whose wife and baby have just died, and 10-year-old Claudia (Allison Fischer), whose mother has just died. They live together relatively happily for about 30 years until Claudia rebels against being a 10-year-old for all of eternity. Lestat also encounters other vampires like Armand (Drew Sarich), leader of a coven of vampires, and Marius (Michael Genet), an ancient vampire who seems to know some of the secrets of their kind.
Despite all the talent and expense that have gone into the show thus far, it's still a work in progress. It began previews Dec. 17 but didn't have its official opening until Jan. 8. Presumably a lot of bugs have been worked out, especially on the technical side, for Derek McLane's set design, Kenneth Posner's lighting design, Jonathan Deans' sound design and Dave McKean's visual concept design work well, facilitating quick scene changes. Rough, reddish, grotto-like walls angle out from the proscenium to set the mood as the audience enters. Photographic and digitally created projections often provide backdrops or convey internal reactions, especially when a vampire feeds on a victim. Susan Hilferty's period costumes enhance the atmosphere.
However, Act 1 moves slowly under Robert Jess Roth's direction, and John's songs for it don't have much impact until Carmello as Gabrielle sings the powerful "The Crimson Kiss." Some incidents are so truncated that they render the characters one-dimensional. This is especially true of Nicolas, who's so important to and loved by Lestat in the book. Act 2 is more involving with more action and interaction. It starts well with the ensemble singing "Welcome to the New World" with effective musical staging by Matt West. Musically, this act is highlighted by Fischer as Claudia singing the insistent "I Want More" and by the finale "From the Dead," a moving choral work sung by the ensemble (musical supervision by Guy Babylon).
The principals' singing is good, but the two lead women, Carmello and Fischer, are the dramatic and vocal standouts. Panaro as Lestat sings well and looks the part of a dashing young aristocrat. However, he has a sing-song way of speaking that comes across as affected and insincere, perhaps even smarmy, thus distancing him from the audience.
"Lestat" is an ambitious venture that has generated a lot of buzz, given the popularity of Rice's books and John's music over the years, but it needs retooling before it's ready for Broadway.