Undead on arrival: Dance of the Vampires(Photo: Paul Kolnik)
Undead on arrival: Dance of the Vampires
(Photo: Paul Kolnik)
I usually attend one of the final previews for every Broadway show, which gives me the luxury of having an open mind on what kind of evening I might have. But I wasn't able to get to Dance of the Vampires until a few days after the poisonous reviews hit, so I had to go in expecting the worst. Truth to tell, even if I had gone before reading any reviews, I would have had extraordinarily low expectations, given all the slings and arrows that this outrageously unfortunate musical had been acquiring during previews.

I'd already been told the best of the worst lines: "God has left the building." "I've been looking for an original sin." "I once danced the polka in Cupid's beer garden." "Sucked as dry as a mummy's scrotum," not to be confused with "Sucking for dummies." These are gags that freshmen write for Hasty Pudding Shows -- only to be told by the seniors that they must do better. What I didn't know was that I'd also hear lines like, "Do you not hunger for more than cooked cabbages?" and that a bat would be able to talk -- and spew profanity. I never expected the show to feature the line "I hate nuns," to which someone replies, "Who doesn't?"

And Steinman's lyrics! One song pairs "seven" with "eleven" -- my second-least favorite rhyme, right behind "wife" and "life." But that's the least of it. The words "I used my body just like a bandage" do not exactly sing as a lyric. I also wasn't prepared for a father singing to his daughter, "You're not ready. Don't leave Deddy." And John Carrafa's choreography truly looks as if it belongs in The Tall Guy, that movie about a musicalization of The Elephant Man.

There's still four-and-a-half months to go, but Dance of the Vampires will undoubtedly remain unrivaled as the turd of the season. The show begins on a dank, dark set of the forest primeval with eerie lighting that flashes over the audience as well as the stage. (Oh, no! Don't let anyone see I'm here!) Enter Mandy Gonzalez as Sarah, along with two other, equally innocent-looking actresses who pretend to be genuinely afraid. Given the phantasmagorical beings slithering out of the set, the kids have every reason to be scared, but the mood is not sustained. Suddenly, there are jokes, the preponderance involving mushrooms but one establishing that the year is "1880-something."

Our Ingenue and Our YoungJuvenile Would-Be Hero:Mandy Gonzalez and Max von Essen(Photo: Paul Kolnik)
Our Ingenue and Our Young
Juvenile Would-Be Hero:
Mandy Gonzalez and Max von Essen
(Photo: Paul Kolnik)
It's not merely that the characters don't know what year it is; the authors don't know the time of day, and audiences aren't going to give it to them. Even in the first few minutes of the show, it's already too late for jokes because the sets, costumes, and staging (which looked like Act I, Scene Two of The Tempest) had already prepped us for a serious musical. So had the logo, which suggested a dark and stormy night. So had the title, which sounded earnest. Given that much of the first act of Dance of the Vampires was out for unmitigated laughs, it should have used the subtitle that its source, The Fearless Vampire Killers, originally employed: Pardon Me, But Your Teeth Are in My Neck. At least that would have let people immediately know they were in for a spoof. Since we didn't know, the jokes strike us as inadvertently incompetent dialogue. This primes the crowd to laugh at the show, not with it.

We've all heard by now that Dance of the Vampires switched its style in midstream, going from the serious pop-opera that it was in Europe to the retro-chic musical comedy that is now in style on Broadway. That must be why the "Creatures of the Night," as the program derivatively identified them, appear in pants that look like overalls from Dogpatch and do a dance that isn't at all scary but, instead, resembles something from a '60s variety show that's desperately trying to be au courant. Another problem: Comedy is best served by bright lighting, but because vampires can only exist in the dark, most of the show is set at night -- and that undercuts whatever comedy there tries to be.

Suddenly, I saw a character in a black cape heading down the aisle to the stairs leading to the stage. Nice entrance for Michael Crawford, I thought, only to find that it was an usher who was seating latecomers. (Ushers at this show are forced to wear capes to add to our experience). Actually, Crawford gets a much better entrance, emerging from a coffin (of course). Though his last name in the show is Krolock, he has an Italian immigrant's accent. We learn that his middle name is Italian: Giovanni. Later, he admits to more Italian middle names, ones that take their influence from pasta and operas -- Capellini and Trovatore. I don't know where they came from but they're probably not confirmation names, given that that a vampire can't get near a cross without suffering.

I'd already heard that Crawford was made up to look like Liberace in Las Vegas, but I'd say he looks more like the guy who's playing one of the side lounges. At the end of his first number at the performance I attended, there was not a smidgen of applause. Some return to Broadway! What did get a big hand was the number that followed, one that might just step out of the show to become a tune that all the nation knows. Listen: I'm not saying that "Garlic" is a good song, but after watching a bunch of peasants wax rhapsodic about the foodstuff in front of sets straight out of a Shubert road operetta, I do believe that the Garlic Trade Commission should adopt the number as its national commercial.

Scary for the wrong reasons: DOTV(Photo: Paul Kolnik)
Scary for the wrong reasons: DOTV
(Photo: Paul Kolnik)
More than an hour later, the first act curtain fell on Dance of the Vampires -- and I really felt the show could have solved its problems in the same way that Jerome Robbins fixed A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. That 1962 musical wasn't working because it didn't have the right setup at the top of the show; it required "Comedy Tonight" to prepare the audience to see a gag-filled musical. DOTV needed an equally droll song.

But need I say that ...Forum is a much better show? Sondheim, Shevelove, and Gelbart didn't put anachronisms in their musical (that wine joke you heard in the 1996 revival -- "Was One a good year?" -- came from the movie) but Dance of the Vampires certainly embraces them: "Well-hung." "Bela Bartokovich." "Come up and see me sometime." "Shake and bake." "Wagner's Greatest Hits." A "Do Not Disturb" sign on a coffin. Granted, some of these may not technically be anachronistic, but they do have a contemporary ring.

I've learned over time that if a musical has a few first-act problems, the second act will be murderously awful. So, too, with DOTV. But in the second act, we do get to see, I suspect, at least some of the show that has enchanted Europe. Suddenly, the jokes are kept to a minimum and the heartfelt power ballads are upped to the max. But it's a little late to hear Our Young Juvenile Would-Be Hero (Max von Essen) sincerely sing "There's a dream known as home." Imagine The Boy Friend with a score that suddenly turns serious; Dance of the Vampires is a dish of whipped cream topped with tomato sauce.

And then there's the interpolated pop hit "Total Eclipse of the Heart." I had, of course, heard that this earlier song from composer-lyricist Steinman would be in the show; but even if I hadn't, I would have guessed, because there were at least three mentions of a "total eclipse" in the first act. C'mon, Steinman! If you're so talented, write a new song that's just as good. Funny: Near the end of the hand-me-down, Crawford says "No! No!" as part of the dialogue but it sounds as if he's commenting on the authors' decision to include the number.

That's not the only time Crawford provides unintentional humor. At one point, he says, "Sometimes I look in the mirror and wonder, where have I gone?" The audience didn't immediately laugh at this, but when it did, there was a mocking quality, for they had found another meaning in the line: How can Crawford look at himself in the mirror each morning, given how he's chosen to spend his life these days? He even has to don drag for a joke that never pays off. Still -- credit where it's due -- he can still sing. In fact, he holds one note so long that he makes Ethel Merman look like Marcel Marceau in Silent Movie.

Sing to me, angel of muzak:Mandy Gonzalez and Michael Crawford(Photo: Paul Kolnik)
Sing to me, angel of muzak:
Mandy Gonzalez and Michael Crawford
(Photo: Paul Kolnik)
René Auberjonois, who once won a Tony for singing a song called "Fiasco," now finds himself in one. ("This looks pretty cryptic," he has to say in his role of Professor Abronsius when he comes across a couple of crypts.) Wonder if, while Crawford and Gonzalez are busy with the interpolated "Total Eclipse of the Heart," Auberjonois is humming to himself a different old pop hit: "Walk Away, René."

Ron Orbach plays a character who's eventually supposed to be dead. When this moment comes, director John Rando has Orbach contort himself into a terribly awkward position with his right leg up in the air. While the character's wife is saying how stiff he is, the poor soul must struggle to not move his leg, which neither he nor anyone else could manage. (Orbach is, of course, a poor soul in another way: He was the original Franz Liebkind in The Producers but endured a knee injury during the tryout run, so Brad Oscar took his place. As it turns out, this is the year that Orbach should have become incapacitated.)

There are visual jokes about sponges in DOTV but no jokes in a woeful list song about books. A gay character suddenly emerges to try to seduce Our Young Juvenile Would-Be Hero; I saw this scene particularly clearly because the couple in front of me had walked out moments before it started. There's a comic number in which a bunch of zombies sing, "Eternity isn't what it's cracked up to be" -- but every character in the show who's dead seems very happy about it, so Steinman just went for one more cheap, anachronistic joke at the expense of the show. Crawford's death scene is technically impressive but, again, there is no applause because the audience is long lost by this time.

At this point in John Rando's career, you think he'd find some consistency in tone. A family emergency must have taken precedence for him, and rightly so. But it's too bad that he didn't tell his producers early in the game that, if they wanted a laff-fest instead of a serious musical, Dance of the Vampires should have been no longer than 90 intermissionless minutes and not a two-act extravaganza that lets out well after 10:30pm.

Am I giving anything away -- you're not going to see this, are you? -- by saying that, though the Crawford character dies, the vampires do wind up taking over the world at the end of the show. This brings us to the Times Square of the future, where signs proclaim the availability of Bloodweiser Beer and that tasty, powdered orange drink Fang. A show called Bats, with a logo uncannily like that of a Lloyd Webber show of yore, advertises that it's now in its 39th year.

Well, I know one musical that won't be able to make such a claim. And I also know this: All those producers who have musicals in development and claim they've raised enough money "but there just isn't a theater available" will now have to invent a new excuse for not coming in.

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[To contact Peter Filichia directly, e-mail him at pfilichia@aol.com]