A Good Nightmare Comes So Rarely, While Ordinary Dreams Are So Easy To Find: Ruminations on Dance of the Vampires

Vampires and vampire hunters have always been a ubiquitous and (for the most part) successful presence in popular culture – in movies, on television, in video games and of course, in literature; the one genre where this kind of achievement has proven to be elusive is on stage, particularly in the realm of musical theatre (at least on Broadway). Ten years ago tonight, Dance of the Vampires started its previews at the Minskoff Theatre (after a two-day postponement due to technical issues), and had been (at the time) the most expensive musical to be produced on Broadway. The show was an English adaptation of the German musical Tanz Der Vampire, which was, in turn, based on the Roman Polanski film The Fearless Vampire Killers and boasted a score by Jim Steinman, most noted for epic rock songs for Meat Loaf. The show also heralded the return of Michael Crawford to the Broadway stage since his definitive performance in Phantom of the Opera. There were great expectations for the show, and on the surface it seemed that it was destined to be a sure-fire success – sadly, the reality fell far short of the expectations.

[Disclaimer: Once again, in the spirit of full disclosure, my interest in Dance of the Vampires began when it had been announced that Michael Crawford would be returning to Broadway as Count von Krolock. I’ve already mentioned previously that Mr. Crawford is one of my favorite theatre actors, and I was greatly looking forward to seeing him live on stage – so this is advanced warning that parts of this blog will come across as highly emotional and quite possibly end up just being one quasi-coherent long rant. Also, as this blog is about Dance and not Tanz, there will not be any overt comparisons/criticisms between the two productions; again this blog, as with all my previous and future blogs, is of my own opinion and should be respected as such.]

I have already mentioned in a previous blog, the fact that Dance of the Vampires was slated to play at the Minskoff Theatre (which at the time was still “cursed”) did not bode well in my mind; added to the fact that there were substantial changes from its source material, Tanz der Vampire, to make Dance less dark and more comical was probably not a good sign either. I will not speculate on hearsay on the reasons behind these changes or other rumors on the goings on during rehearsals and such; I’ve never put too much stock in that kind of gossip and repeating them all these years late would perpetuate the initial incident, which could or could not have been something totally different. Needless to say, the changes were made, songs were dropped and other songs were added – would Dance have had a longer run had the plot and score been just like Tanz? Maybe, but then again maybe not; there’s no point in wondering what could have been, but to reflect on what did happen.

The plot of Dance of the Vampires revolves around the highly logical vampire hunter Professor Abronsius and his former theology student turned factotum Alfred arriving in the village of Lower Belabartovich in Transylvania to slay the last of the vampires, the charismatic Count Giovanni von Krolock. The Count, in turn, has his sights set on seducing Sarah, the innkeeper’s daughter, who is destined to fulfill an ancient prophesy that “vampires will dance in the light of the sun”. My initial and everlasting impression of the show was that it was highly entertaining, with a fantastic score, which included “Total Eclipse of the Heart” (which was always received with applause and laughter, mostly due to recognition). The set design was spectacular and the visual effects astounding, though I will admit that some of the early preview costumes for Count von Krolock were far too outlandish and unbelievable – thankfully the Count’s costumes were changed to be more in the same vein (pun intended) of the traditional image of vampires. Also I found it highly ironic for a show with vampires to have so much bright white light in it – artistically done, but it was all far too much.

The entire cast was astounding – having missed seeing Michael Crawford in Phantom of the Opera, I was delighted to have been able to see and hear him on stage in character (I had only seen and hear him sing in concert several years prior); he has a knack for comedy along with a flair for drama as the charming yet conflicted Count von Krolock. As Professor Abronsius, René Auberjonois, best known for his TV and movie roles, was equally brilliant; other standout performances came from Mandy Gonzalez and Max von Essen, as Sarah and Alfred, both of whom were vocal powerhouses destined for greatness. Also,  given the show’s title, I was amused and delighted that every cast member, at one point or another, did dance on stage.

Again, as stated in a previous blog, Dance of the Vampires had received the most hateful, negative “reviews” I have ever read, most of which were not so much reviews for the production itself, but seemed to be personal attacks on Crawford himself, and barely mentioned any of the other cast. All the print reviews were so similar to one another that I could almost believe that one critic had written the review and the other critics had used that as their template. I felt (and still feel) that this was deliberate, uncalled for, and most certainly contrary to what a critical review should be; I could understand (though not agree) that had these personal attacks been limited to newspaper gossip columns or internet message boards and forums, I would have considered them to be opinions of whomever had written them – everyone is entitled to an opinion, after all. I may not agree with them, but they have a right to them, as do I have a right to my own opinions.

The production ran a little over three months, and I was fortunate to have seen the show nine times within that time frame. This show was also the first show for which I had attended both the matinee and evening performance – the final two performances, which were highly emotional and enthusiastically received (if memory serves). I even recall overhearing some departing theater-goers question why such an entertaining show was closing, which was in stark contrast to an incident that happened to me shortly after the “reviews” came out. I had been outside the Minskoff Theatre waiting to enter the theater, when I stuck a conversation with some passersby looking to see a show; when I had recommended they see Dance I can recall the haughty tone of one of the passersby, who had accused me of being a shill for the show. When I had responded that I wasn’t, I was looked upon with suspicion and disbelief. Needless to say the incident startled me immensely and gave me some insight on how persuasive press reviews can be to the average theatergoer, as well as a sober lesson that even if “everyone” dislikes a show, there are some who love that same show, and their adoration should not be dismissed.

I can recall the stage door area being swarmed with theater-goers that final night, which was astounding not only for their appreciation for the hard work the cast and crew gave, but also due to the fact that it had been  quite a cold and windy winter evening (though it did not snow). Looking back at the show ten years after it started, despite the negative reviews, I thoroughly enjoyed the Dance of the Vampires and saw it for what it was – an evening of fun entertainment with great songs, brilliant staging and a fantastic cast. It’s a shame that an official cast recording was never made (if there is one, it’s never been released).

So it would seem the moral of this story is that singing vampires apparently do not and/or cannot succeed on Broadway – subsequent to Dance, two other vampire-centric musicals open and quickly closed – Frank Wildhorn’s Dracula: The Musical and Elton John’s Lestat. Though with the rise in popularity of vampires on film and TV these days, maybe there’s hope that Dance could possibly have a second life (or at least perhaps a concert version).

Michael Crawford as the Count von Krolock – his final (albeit blurry) appearance

Of Drinks and Drama: Musings on Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? – October 4, 2012

It’s pretty much a universal truth that the consumption of excessive amounts of alcohol in the wee hours of the morning will bring out the worst in people, resulting in embarrassing behavior, divulged secrets and a whole lot of hurt, be it physical, mental and/or emotional. Perhaps there is no better theatrical display of the damaging results of late night over imbibing than in Edward Albee’s play Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, currently playing at the Booth Theatre and celebrating its 50th anniversary with the current revival opening on the same date as the original production had (October 13th). I had obtained tickets via the TDF ticket raffle booth at this year’s Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS Flea Market & Auction and I had heard much praise for this production, which originated at the famed Steppenwolf Theater in Chicago.

The play revolves around George and Martha, a middle-aged married couple – he a history professor at a fictional New England college, and she the daughter of the president of said college – who invite a new (young) biology professor and his wife to their home. Already inebriated from the party from which they all attended,  more and more drinks are served along with scathing remarks and vicious retorts between George and Martha; the younger couple, who are never directly addressed by name, are appalled at their hosts’ behavior but are soon baited as well and find themselves entangled in the crossfire. Hurtful accusations and indiscreet revelations are exposed and in the end, the line between reality and illusion is shattered, leaving both couples with deep emotional scars that may never heal.

This was my first time ever seeing this play, and while I knew the general plot of the play, I was astounded by the verbal tennis match between George and Martha, and the appropriate use of vulgarities and sexual innuendo, which must have been shocking fifty years ago, but now seems to be the norm. The four actors, all of whom were in the Steppenwolf production (three of whom were making their Broadway debut), were also astounding – Tracy Letts and Amy Morton, as the combative George and Martha, and Madison Dirks and Carrie Coon as the unsuspecting younger couple. Tracy Letts, a playwright himself, was electrifying to watch as he matched insults and accusations with Amy Morton with great aplomb, you’d imagine that they actually were an embittered married couple (I’ve since read in several articles that both Letts and Morton have worked together numerous times before, which explains their rapport); to see Letts’ almost passive rage build and escalate throughout the course of the play to the point where his entire head turns scarlet red as he spews his combative diatribe to anyone within listening range is a master class in acting. Amy Morton is a perfect verbal sparring partner and is equally vicious in her baiting  tirades and at the same time alluring as the cuckolding wife. Mason Dirks and Carrie Coon also hold their own, involuntarily absorbing the toxic atmosphere in which they find themselves and attempts in vain to not be affected by it, but with the layers of dysfunction they witness in their hosts, coupled with their own flaws, it would not be hard for them to believe, if only for a moment, that they could become like George and Martha.

It was one of the rare occasions that I did not wait at the stage door, as I was quite overwhelmed by what I had just seen that I momentarily had lost the ability to form coherent sentences.  Clocking in at over three hours (with two intermissions), Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is a massive undertaking to endure, but it is well worth it to see a quartet of actors at their peak delivering a master class in dramatic acting.

Update 6/10/2013: Heartfelt and deserved congratulations to Tracy Letts and Pam MacKinnon who were respectively named Best Actor in a Play and Best Director in a Play, and the production itself, named Best Revival of a Play at last night’s Tony Awards. Kudos to Mr. Letts and Ms. MacKinnon for their wonderful acceptance speeches.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Faith and Knowledge, Fate or Coincidence: Thoughts on Grace – October 3, 2012

Issues of faith and individual choice have always been the source of much debate and conflict in any society, but it seems (to me) that these debates, discussions and such are more acutely at the forefront of American media right now, with politicians and political commentators expressing their opinions and impressing their viewpoints to the general public (and the general public responding in kind via social media) – not surprisingly so, since this year is an election year and it seems (to me) that generally speaking, most of the nation is polarized to be exclusively on one side of the political fence. So in the midst of all these (oftentimes) heated discussions and debates, comes Grace, a new play by Craig Wright, currently playing at the Cort Theatre for a limited run from September 13, 2012 through January 6, 2013. The play commentates on the notion of faith and facts, and on whether events happen due to fate or coincidence. I had obtained tickets for this play (among others) via the TDF ticket raffle booth at this year’s Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS Flea Market & Auction, and had been intrigued by the premise of the piece.

The premise of the play centers around Steve and Sara, a religiously devout couple from Minnesota who relocate to Florida with the hopes of building a chain of gospel-themed motels (“Where would Jesus stay?” posits Steve whilst explaining his vision), and their interactions with their neighbor Sam, a NASA scientist who has had his share of tragedy, and Karl, an exterminator who also has had tragic moments in his life. Both Sam and Karl essentially have very little faith in God, which juxtaposes Steve and Sara’s overwhelming faith, and their verbal confrontations have lasting impact on their perspectives on life. Time and space are also a recurring theme, as scenes are replayed and the single set design sans any visible walls enhances the overlapping nature of the characters. The play is billed as a dark comedy, though a fellow theatergoer had commented that the play would be more accurately described as a dramedy – there are moments of lighted-hearted banter in the piece as well as poignant revelations.

The four actors on stage were astounding in their performances – the cast consisted of Paul Rudd, best known for comedic movies such as Knocked Up and The Forty-Year-Old Virgin, Kate Arrington, a Chicago-based theatre actress making her Broadway debut, Michael Shannon, best known for movies such as Revolutionary Road and as a regular on the TV series Boardwalk Empire, and Ed Asner, best known as “Lou Grant” on the Mary Tyler Moore Show and countless other TV and films, as Steve, Sara, Sam and Karl, respectively. I was quite impressed with Paul Rudd and his nuanced performance of a man so focused and reliant upon his faith that it blinds him from the pragmatic flaws in his mission; having primarily seen him on film in a comedic roles, it was quite a revelation. Kate Arrington makes the most of her Broadway debut and brings forth complexity in what might have been a one-dimensional character – her portrayal allows for shades of grey in an otherwise black and white vantage point. Michael Shannon exudes both seething and quiet anger concurrently, becoming the catalyst that changes Steve and Sara’s lives. While not always on stage, Ed Asner provides much of the comedic moments within the play, but also imparts moments of poignancy and perspective.

The stage door experience was great, per usual, with a mix of younger and older theatergoers waiting (the younger theatergoers looking forward to seeing Paul Rudd, and the older theatergoers anticipating to see Ed Asner).  The actors came out and delighted in signing playbills and posing for photos – both Ed Asner and Michael Shannon lingered to chat with those waiting at the stage door, determined to meet each and every person there (to the point where Ed Asner had to be physically pulled away from chatting and signing playbills and into a waiting taxi!).  It was the final matinee before opening the following evening, so there were plenty of well wishes for the cast from those at the stage door.

The cast of Grace (clockwise from top): Kate Arrington, Paul Rudd, Michael Shannon and Ed Asner

In conclusion, I do recommend seeing this play for the sheer quality of acting from its cast and its own perspective on the notion of faith, knowledge, fate and coincidence.

Cast signed playbill